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Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on June 25, 2007
What is nanotechnology? Much of what has fallen under that label has been incremental extension of established engineering practices and technologies to the nanoscale, e.g. improvements in planar silicon fabrication. How much longer can this continue? A more radical vision is that of K. Eric Drexler and his followers, who foresee precise positional control and construction of "assemblers" and "nanofactories" based on the chemistry of carbon. Is this vision -- which spawned much speculative literature and the grey goo scenario of out of control replicators -- feasible?

Jones argues that a wholly different approach will have to be adopted -- an approach suited to the peculiar physics of the nanoscale, where fluctuations and Brownian motion dominate, where surfaces are sticky, and where even quantum field theory (in the Casimir effect) conspires to frustrate the Drexlerian machinist.

Rather than try to work around the physics of the nanoscale, Jones proposes that we use it to our advantage -- just as biological soft "nanotechnology" does. Brownian motion and adhesion energy, for instance, make self-assembly possible. Just as proteins spontaneously fold to their native conformations and just as lipid membranes spontaneously assemble and fold into liposomes, we can design molecules to spontaneously achieve useful three dimensional conformations. We can imitate proteins by coupling conformational changes to molecular recognition and environmental changes, the principle which makes a host of protein activities -- signaling, sensing, catalysis -- possible. While traditional Carnot heat engines fail on the nanoscale, we are now beginning to understand the principles of isothermal molecular motors, such as those used for intracellular transport.

I very much recommend this book for its synoptic overview of current nanotechnology and the challenges facing it. Explanations of physical principles are clear and precise, and would benefit the layman and the researcher alike. Jones has much else to say about evolution, systems biology, silicon vs. single molecule electronics, etc. I only regret that he only cursorily discusses bionanotechnology (as opposed to biomimetic synthetic nanotechnology), i.e. what he calls the "Mad Max" approach of stripping down and reengineering working biological nanosystems, which he only introduces in the last chapter. He rightly is concerned about public opposition and even unforeseen consequences of this approach, but I would like to know more about what it has made possible.

Still, I very much recommend this underappreciated book (no reviews yet?) which I think is on par with Purcell's paper "Life at Low Reynolds Number" and Vogel's "Life's Devices" -- a science writing gem.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 26, 2008
Before reading this book I was familiar with the conjecture that MNT (molecular nano-technology)devices will tend to be more like nonascale biological components than macroscale machines and suspected there was some truth to it. This book tends to confirm that hypothesis but gives so much more and in such readable detail.

An advantage is that the author, Jones, is not a biologist but a physist, and his approack deals with the physical phenomina of brownian motion (shaking by thermally excited molicules), surface effects like van der Walls forces and viscosity, and the ways these forces can be taken advantage of rather than fought by unconventional machine components like shape changing molicules for valves and isothermal motors at this scale.

Jones and colleagues are themselves involved with development of nanoscale motors using these techniques and the book also covers the equally weird information processing and transduction devices which are likely to be most useful at this size range, again emphysizing similarities to biocomponents but by no means suggesting that we limit ourselves to slavishly using or copying them.

Later in the book he does get into the physical limitations of the dimonoid assemblers and such originally proposed by Eric Drexler, but this book is by no means simply a put down of another researcher's ideas or cat fight between them.

As a view of what short and medium term MNT is likely to be like I can not think of a better source. While this text uses little mathematics it does manage to rigorously lay out the underlying physical laws that will limit some types of construction at this size range but also provide some new and almost magic seeming possibilities.

Over-all I would say this book contains les "hype" about nanotechnology than any I have come across, presenting facts instead.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 24, 2014
Eric Drexler published "Engines of Creation" in 1986. He says more or less, "to make the public aware of it and to make debate." Seems these days, he's not too keen on public debate and getting the facts straight; but, maybe this isn't the place to say these things. Almost certainly, the publishing of the book was a bit premature and wishy washy. Richard Jones book almost seems to me to be about pointing this out. He still likes to show the wonders that could come from Eric Drexler's(and Richard Feynman's) nanotechnology(more like nanomanufacturing). Richard's two major objections to Drexler's nanodreams are 1)Brownian motion and 2) the cassimir force(in chemists language, van der waals forces). I remember some experimentalists confirming these problems years ago; and, I haven't heard anybody disprove this fundamental problem with nanomanufactuing Drexler style. But, as Richard points out, life does show some entropic/Brownian motion 'nanotechnologies.'

I think it has been shown both theoretically and experimentally that each atom to atom reaction has its own Brownian motion, and then, each atom to a given molecule, and then molecule to molecule has it's own Brownian motion that the nanotool needs to be designed to 'mechanically' combine the two. This more or less makes Drexler's vision impractical. But, perhaps there's a self-organization way and then on a sufficiently large scale, we can bring in mechanical combining(like the micron level!) It's not like Eric Drexler hadn't ever heard of these things; but, clearly, he underestimated them.

One possible way to make Drexler's atomically precise nanotechnology is by making things very cold. But, one can't imagine constructing things on a very large scale by first having everything at absolute zero temperatures. Another way that I've brought up before but was ignored was chaotic dynamics controls. Well, I guess we'll see how long it takes them to do so! Drexler's nanotechnology might be toned down a little bit, or maybe, the actual nanotechnology will be an even more remarkable accomplishment than they had ever dreamt of?
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This book provides a refreshing view of Nanotechnology. I recommend it to anyone that wants to read about Nanotech, as one of the first "must read" in the subject. Well explained, it is really going to take you on a nice journey to that fascinating small world.
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