Hippo Manchester
November 17, 2005

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Books: Nanofuture - What’s Next for Nanotechnology, by J. Storrs Hall, Ph.D., Prometheus Books, 2005, 333 pages.
by Lisa Parsons

For a guy who says we can’t know the future, J. Storrs Hall is making a lot of predictions.

Specifically, he’s predicting the effects of nanotechnology, the craft of building structures atom by atom. (“Nano-” means a billionth. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter.)

Hall, chief scientist of Nanorex, Inc., and formerly a computer scientist at Rutgers, envisions cars propelled by invisibly tiny wheel-legs along their bellies, “nanoskin” clothes of incredibly thin fabric that can heat or cool the wearer, swarms of military drones the size of flies (but they’d be useless against those clothes), 200-horsepower engines smaller than pocketknives, pocketknives more powerful than chainsaws, walls and other surfaces that keep themselves clean, and itty bitty computers implanted in our brains.

And he forecasts Star Trek-style synthesizers in every home, able to create anything in a jiff – pens, pencils, paper, flowers, snacks, keys, money, another synthesizer. Maybe a person; the crystal ball is fuzzy on that one. The synthesizer would take natural gas and water as input and create water and power as output; Hall doesn’t explain how.

Such far-reaching technology would bring equally big social and economic transformations. Hall spins thought experiment after thought experiment like threads of cotton candy: it’s a tax-free, virtual-reality-heavy future in which personal responsibility is paramount and government interference is to be avoided.

Hall’s predictions are broad and long-term and completely serious, and that combination makes them fascinating – that and the fact that he knows at least somewhat what he’s talking about with regard to the science, and that he is very good at conveying ideas with visual imagery.

“Imagine you have a plate full of peas that have been coated with honey. Put them on the floor, run upstairs, cut a hole in the floor above, and reach through with a fishing pole. You can now manipulate the peas about as well as we can manipulate atoms with a scanning probe. The pole is sticky, too, so you can drag and stack them as well as just pushing.” Don’t you wish this guy had been your chemistry teacher?

Hall says the most popular horror stories, in which clouds of self-replicating nanoparticles consume the biosphere, won’t come true, because along with the ability to do the bad stuff we’ll necessarily acquire the ability to stop or combat it.

In fact, Hall says, nanotech will save the environment by (1) giving us mile-high towers, so that we leave a smaller footprint on the Earth (though, he acknowledges elsewhere, “Ultimately we’re going to pack people like sardines in megahives or move into space, or probably, both”) and (2) giving us nanoskins, which will let us live in inhospitable places – Alaska is his example – thereby lessening our impact on any one place. (Though, again, would we not eventually end up packed like sardines in megahives in Alaska?) It’s a novel argument; when was the last time you heard someone posit that populating the wilds would help the environment?

It’s a pretty nifty future, this one. How true it is, we can’t know, but one thing we do know: there are people – certainly those at Nanorex, Inc., – hard at work on it.