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Book Review

The Dance of Molecules:
How Nanotechnology is Changing Our Lives

Reviewed by Robert J. Sawyer

The review was first published in The Literary Review of Canada in April 2006.
The Dance of Molecules: How Nanotechnology is Changing Our Lives by Ted Sargent, Viking Canada, 234 pages, hardcover, ISBN 0-670-06378-9.

Copyright © 2006 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved


Size Matters
by Robert J. Sawyer

In 2000, Bill Joy, the chief scientist for Sun Microsystems, published his now-famous anti-technology manifesto entitled "Why The Future Doesn't Need Us" in Wired magazine. In it, he outlined technologies that he feared might spell the end of our species, major among which was nanotechnology. Although Ted Sargent doesn't mention Joy in his new book The Dance of Molecules, he's clearly responding to Joy's doomsaying, cheerleading all the way.

This is a brief book: thin, with loosely packed pages (and with irritating pull quotes every second or third page; it's a book meant to be read sequentially, not a magazine to be browsed, and these blocks of text seem nothing but filler). But perhaps the size of the book is appropriate given its subject: nanotechnology is the science of the very small, devoted to the manipulation of individual molecules, choreographing, as the title would have it, their movements and combinations, so that we can make them do magical things.

Indeed, in 1967, science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously observed, in what has now become known as his Third Law, that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." When he said this, he had in mind technologies thousands if not millions of years ahead our own, but nanotech, as Sargent paints it, brings such magic into the present, giving us limitless energy (thanks to flexible, cheap solar collectors unrolled like wallpaper over rooftops), wearable computers that manipulate directly the images created inside our eyes, and pharmacies-on-a-chip implanted into people to manufacture and dispense a constantly changing cocktail of tonics and cures.

But there's no such thing as magic — only misdirection, hand-waving to draw the eye here while something prosaic and comprehensible is happening there. Sargent is a prestidigitator, distracting our attention and, unfortunately, obfuscating in the process. He characterizes (in his trademark sentence fragments) artificial scaffolds that can be used to coax cells into desired forms to a ludicrous degree: "Nice big lofts with high ceilings and attractive furnishings, yet comfy and cozy at the same time. Roomy without causing agoraphobia. They create a welcoming environment tailored to the cells of interest: chintz and a cat for pancreatic cells, glass and brushed steel for liver cells." [Page 65]

One quickly grows weary of the over-the-top metaphors: the scaffold design, we're told, "appears to have a huge impact on the life and death of cells: for some, Bauhaus is Eros; Pei, Thanatos." [Page 67]

Indeed, in places The Dance of Molecules reads as though Dennis Miller had written a science book, so sprinkled is it with allusions and pop-culture references. We hear of the Frank Gehrys of tissue architecture, are told that quantum effects resemble the rap music of Tupac, and are asked to ponder: "Will cells cultivated in trailer parks" — one of Sargent's many synonyms for artificial scaffolding — "grow up to be Oprah? Or will they turn into Britney Spears? With these as possible outcomes, we cannot afford to gamble." [Page 65]

And yet, references to Britney Spears (or is it Oprah he decries?) are about as ominous as Sargent gets; he gives scant attention to the potential downsides of nanotech, the best known of which is the gray-goo scenario, made famous in Michael Crichton's 2002 novel Prey: nanotech devices called assemblers start converting raw material from one form to another, and don't stop until the world is consumed. But there's no mention of this in Sargent's relentlessly upbeat book; it's as if the text had been vetted by the Nanotech Marketing Board.

Doubtless Sargent is deliberate in not deigning to discuss Joy or Crichton, but, given that The Dance of Molecules is so clearly an updating of the seminal work on nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler's 1986 classic Engines of Creation (Anchor Books), Sargent seems ungenerous for not even mentioning Drexler in passing. Indeed, he leaves us with the impression that nanotech has emerged full-blown in the last few years, conjured ex nihilo by wunderkinds instead of being the result of decades of research and development — magic, a rabbit from a hat.

Still, even if they're portrayed as magicians, at least the brash, young scientists that appear in profusion in Sargent's pages are colourfully drawn. Of systems biologists, we're told: "Their voyeurism knows no bounds: details of fluids excreted in replication titillate. Cells' reproductive scatology beguiles." [Page 45]

In fact, scientists and their subjects all seem rather frisky: "That two molecules were destined to be together, bound to one another, cannot be determined at a demure distance by checking out each other's incomes, aptitudes, and family histories. Instead, the cell is a vast orgy, molecules trying one another on for size with surprising promiscuity." [Page 33]

Fortunately, there are occasional oases of direct prose: "When a car accident or life-threatening illness strikes we may not have the luxury of six to eight weeks to wait for a new organ. Someday, as a result of tissue engineering, will each of us have a supply of spare parts growing in dedicated bioreactors at the tissue farm, ready and waiting for when we need them — a body double? And ethically, when will we feel we've gone too far? Without a doubt we would grow and implant an engineered kidney into a patient who would otherwise die. But what about upgrades? Bigger, better hearts for athletes. Leg extensions for aspiring models. Malleable new pieces of brain for those needing to master an entirely new trick late in life: learning to play chess, or mastering negotiation or the viola." [Page 76]

The book would benefit from more clear passage such as this, which say what they mean directly and that actually specify the ethical concerns that otherwise are mostly just vaguely alluded to.

There's no doubt that Sargent has the chops to write this book: he's currently Visiting Professor of Nanotechnology at the Microphotonics Center at MIT (on leave from the University of Toronto, where he is Canada Research Chair in the area of Emerging Technologies). In 2003, MIT's Technology Review dubbed him "one of the world's top one hundred young innovators" (he was born in 1973), and in 2004, The Globe and Mail's Report on Business Magazine included him on its list of the "Top 40 under 40."

One just wishes he could be a little more the journalist, a little less the huckster. Sargent gives lip service to the notion that legislators and the public must come to grips with all the ethical ramifications of nanotech, then tells us very little about what those might be. He portrays a brave new world — but that book, too, is never mentioned, and we're left feeling, as one always does at the end of a magic show, entertained by the gaudy performance and yet filled with niggling doubts whenever we stop to think about what we did, and, just as importantly, didn't see.

Hugo Award-winning science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer's latest novel is Mindscan (Tor)


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