A look at nanotech from many perspectives and professions


By Candace Stuart

The nanoworld is a baffling place. With nanoscience still in its infancy, much of how matter works - or doesn’t work - at the nanoscale remains a mystery. Most of the technology that builds off that scientific knowledge resides in the labs and lobes of innovative researchers. And almost all of the commerce is still a far-off dream.

In “Nanotechnology: Science, Innovation and Opportunity,” editor Lynn Foster has attempted to build bridges among the disparate professions and interests involved in nanotechnology. Writers from a variety of backgrounds - scientists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, investors and even a sociologist - guide readers through their segment of the nanoworld.

“Nanotechnology: Science, Innovation and Opportunity”
Edited by Lynn Foster
(nonfiction, 283 pages, published in 2006 by Prentice Hall, $29.99 in hardback)
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“With the diversity of professional cultures in mind, a central goal of this book is to promote communication and cooperation between researchers and industry by including similarly diverse articles written by experts but accessible to everybody,” Foster writes in his preface.

Foster, the emerging technologies director at the law firm Greenberg Traurig, is tapped into the movers and shakers in nanotechnology. He’s directed numerous nanotech trade shows and conferences, written studies, and sits on three nano advisory boards. His affiliations likely helped him secure prominent names such as the late Richard Smalley, a Nobel laureate; Mike Roco, an architect of the National Nanotechnology Initiative and nano adviser for the National Science Foundation (NSF); Steve Jurvetson, a managing director with the venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson; and Larry Bock, veteran biotech entrepreneur and founder of Nanosys Inc.

The results are mixed. With more than 30 authors represented, the book is sometimes repetitious, uneven and stale. But the scattershot approach ensures there is a topic of interest for just about everyone, with occasional insights that entice the reader to continue into the next chapter.

Several authors feel compelled at some point in their essays to provide a definition or spell out rudimentary principles of nanotechnology. While a standalone essay might require such an explanation, a series suffers from the redundancy.

The multiple-essay format also lends itself to inconsistencies in tone, style and writing quality. Some essays are little more than extensive lists, informative but not particularly deep. Others read more like a review from the journal Nature, replete with citations, illustrations and esoteric language. (For the record, I enjoyed those chapters but wonder if they fit Foster’s “accessible to everyone” criteria.)

And a few chapters reeked of the recycling bin. Smalley, the Nobel laureate, submitted a piece explaining how nanotechnology could and should be used to solve the energy crisis. A grand and articulate thinker, Smalley was by then at his most masterful - like a musician who had perfected his craft. But I wonder how many of the book’s readers would have, like me, already heard the performance during one of Smalley’s many keynote addresses. Or read one of his many other writings on the subject in this magazine or elsewhere. An essay on nano-enabled sensors was also a retread. A version of the piece had appeared in Sensors magazine in 2003.

There were delightful parts as well. Tech transfer veteran Larry Gilbert and lawyer Michael Krieger took the contrarian approach of focusing on the unique features that make or break a deal, rather than explain the process. Intel’s George Thompson provided a short but insightful look at how new technology gets inserted into a product. Sociologist and NSF program director Bill Bainbridge explained why industry should care about ethics.

And Mark Reed, an applied physicist and electrical engineer at Yale University, stands out for creativity and humor: “One might view this field (nanomaterials) as a variant of engineering; instead of studying what is, we try to create what never was - and at unprecedented levels.”

“Nanotechnology” has its shortcomings, but it has helped make the nanoworld a better place.