November 17, 2005
Books: Nanofuture - What’s Next for
Nanotechnology, by J. Storrs Hall, Ph.D., Prometheus Books, 2005, 333
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
“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.