A peak at the early adopters gives glimpse of nano’s future


By Candace Stuart

Nanotechnology is a tricky topic for books. Researchers worldwide make discoveries monthly, and sometimes it seems daily. Sticking points in the innovation process get crossed, prototypes designed and manufacturing processes refined. Companies form, grow and sometimes fail, and occasionally a product or two wiggles its way into the marketplace.

In this scenario of constant change, making a book timely becomes a mammoth challenge for an author. Steven Edwards, a science writer, analyst and a familiar name on the conference circuit, seems to have avoided the problem by choosing a topic that should have a long shelf life: the pioneers in nanotechnology. But oddly enough, even tales of the earliest innovators, their advancements and other developments suffer from nanotech’s warp-speed development.

Edwards is well positioned for the task. He earned a doctorate in biology and worked as a research scientist at the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation and as a faculty member in biochemistry at the Meharry Medical College before switching to a writing career. For several years he has taken the helm at the nano/bio convergence conference run by Business Communications Co., for which he has worked as an analyst. His science background and communication skills meld nicely in “The Nanotech Pioneers,” particularly when the subject is the life sciences.

Some members of the nanotech community might quibble with his choice of highlighted pioneers, which slants toward members of the Foresight Institute. K. Eric Drexler, Ralph Merkle, Ray Kurzweil and Jim Von Ehr all appear among the visionaries. Foresight-inspired Von Ehr is as well known today for a company - Zyvex - that has successfully integrated carbon nanotubes and other nanomaterials into consumer products. Foresight co-founder Drexler deservedly gets credit for bringing the concept of nanotechnology to the public with his book, “Engines of Creation.” Edwards later gives him a verbal drubbing for his penchant for theory over experiment in a section about a later Drexler book, “Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing and Computation.”

Edwards also acknowledges science’s heavy hitters: Richard Feynman, whose 1959 speech and offer of a $1,000 prize to the first person to miniaturize words to the scale of a pinpoint-size encyclopedia is considered the birth of nanotechnology; Mike Roco, whose persistence and dedication helped create the National Nanotechnology Initiative; and Gerd Binnig and Ernst Ruska, whose invention of new microscopy tools has allowed researchers to visualize the nanoscale. He also pays homage to business contributors like Charlie Harris, CEO of the publicly held venture capital company Harris & Harris Group, and Michael Weiner, chief executive of Biophan. Weiner wrote the preface to the book.

Problems crop up when he shifts his focus from the people who made and make nanotech work to the technologies and processes involved. Like many books available today, “Nanotech Pioneers” tries to give readers an overview of the variety of nanomaterials, tools, and applications like nanoelectronics and nanomedicine. Edward’s portrayals are competent, but for a book being released in 2006, they often feel stale.

For instance, he writes that Freescale Semiconductor is shooting for full-scale production of its MRAM chips in 2005. That didn’t happen until this year. He also explains that Kurzweil’s book, “The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology,” is scheduled for distribution in September of 2005. That did happen as scheduled.

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“The Nanotech Pioneers: Where Are They Taking Us”
By Steven Edwards
(nonfiction, 244 pages, published in 2006 by John Wiley & Sons, $27.95)