Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Book Review: Soft Machines

Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life
By Richard A.L. Jones, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0 19 852855 (2004)

Book website

In this book, Richard Jones, a Professor of Physics at the University of Sheffield, addresses the fundamental question: should nanotech aim to take "traditional" engineering principles down to the nanoscale (crudely, to build ever smaller cogs), or should it draw inspiration from nature?

The book opens with several chapters of introductory material, explaining the background to nanotech and the motivation behind it. I was particularly interested in Chapter 7 - Wetware, as coverage of the nanotechnological aspects of living systems are often overlooked in similar texts. Jones makes some interesting observations about bacteria and chemical computing that I would have liked to have seen developed further.

Jones concludes that the "top down" Drexlerian view of nanotechnology is less likely to succeed than the "bottom up" approach of bionanotechnology, whilst at the same time acknowledging the potential risks and public concerns of using modified bacteria as devices or substrates.

Overall, Jones makes his points well in a book that is written in a style somewhere between a popular science book and an introductory textbook. It is both wide-ranging and accessible, although I would have preferred to have seen a rather more extensive bibliography. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the broader aspects of nanotechnology; it is certainly a welcome addition to my library.

1 comment:

William Knight said...

Jones' book and associated blog have ignited a lively debate with the Drexlerian nanotechs, which I think has been great for all sides.

As a former engineer who was mightily inspired by Drexler's vision in the 1980s and early 1990s, I have sympathy for their world view, but early on I concluded that doing nanotechnology in biology's domain is the way to go, and have never regretted that decision.

I suspect that industrial nanotech will best serve as a source of valuable materials, tools and instruments, which can be then be applied, in conjunction with ever more powerful computers, to the real challenge of the next century.

Now that we have the human genome sequence, the challenge that lies before us is to produce a detailed understanding of the mechanisms of living organisms from the level of macromolecules up to the cognitive activity emerging from neural networks in the human brain.

A huge amount of research will be needed to meet this challenge. If 'Soft Machines' can bring more computer and engineering people into molecular and computational biology, that would be a good thing for us all.