Sunday, April 15, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Nanotechnology

Everything gets smaller, right? Well, except for cars. For some reason, us people in the US can't get over huge cars. From clocks to wristwatches, from mainframe computers to desktops to iPads, from cellphones
to cellphones.

Everything gets smaller except those stupid cars. And I just don't get that. About the cars. I totally get things getting smaller. I mean, not just is the cell phone smaller, but it includes all sorts of gadgets. Everything except a coffee maker, and I bet they're working on  that.

However, the greatest example of how things are growing smaller is nanotechnology. Just to be clear, nanotechnology is the study of the manipulation of matter on the atomic and molecular scale. Nanotech is important because materials act differently on the molecular level than they do at the macro level. Because of its incredible diversity, specialized sub-fields are already emerging.

Just to give some examples of applications in nanotech:

For medicine, testing is going on, right now, for little nanofactories in the body that can do things like fight cancer. They attach to the tumor and deliver medicines directly into the tumor reducing surrounding tissue damage to almost nothing.

Remember those carbon nanotubes from this post? With nanotechnology, they can be used to regrow bones and repair other tissue damage.

Nanotubes can also be used for water filtration, which is pretty incredible. They think they can eventually get it so that all contaminants can be removed.

Nanotechnology is also in development for more efficient energy usage and storage. For more memory storage in electronic devices. For increased power and higher beam quality for lasers through the use of quantum dots.

And then there are quantum computers... and that brings us back to this post, since quantum computers may be the next step in bringing that into reality.

But where does all this come from? Where did nanotech begin?

The fictional roots and scientific roots of nanotech, of tiny "machines," go back to almost the same place. Well, the same time. Arthur C. Clarke, in his 1956 short story, "The Next Tenants," describes tiny machines which are the first fictional example displaying the concepts of what we now associate with nanotechnology. In science, the first mention of these concepts followed a mere three years later during a lecture by physicist Richard Feynman. Had he read Clarke's story? No one knows.

There are a few short stories in the '60s and a novel with these concepts; although, none of them are really that important in and of themselves. It's all just planting ideas.

The term "nano-technology" came about in the '70s, but it was the '80s when nanotechnology really became a thing, both in science and in fiction. It was something that sort of came about by accident. At least, scientifically. There were a couple of discoveries, and, suddenly, science was, like, "oh, we can make nanotech stuff, now!" Fiction heard science say this, and ran away with it. At that point, the two became hopelessly entwined, because, as soon as someone starts writing about some application of nanotech or nanobots or nanowhatever, science says, "I think we can do that!"

Okay, that's not exactly true... nanotech has become the "magic" in science fiction in a lot of ways these days. We don't really know what kinds of things are possible, yet, with nanotechnology, so science fiction likes to do whatever it wants and call it "nanotechnology," because no one can say, "No, it's not!" I have an issue with calling magic "science," so this kind of bothers me. On the other hand, I have no issue with calling science "magic." Part of the issue here, I'm going to trace back to Fantastic Voyage
(and it's later, loose adaptation Inner Space).

Fantastic Voyage gave us, more than anything else, this idea that nanotechnology was about tiny, little machines (and, no, when you're talking about things on the nano-scale, "tiny, little" is not redundant). This isn't what nanotechnology is about, but it's what sci-fi wants it to be about. So we get things like the replicators in Stargate which are nanobots that can build themselves into anything, but the implication is that they are molecular-sized robots or, as in Fantastic Voyage, something that has been shrunk. Nanotechnology is not about shrinking things. Even if nanotechnology may be able to be used to make things smaller.

At any rate, nanotechnology is a big thing in sci-fi, right now, and rightly so. The sci-fi is fueling the science, and the science is fueling the sci-fi. The science that lead to nanotech was kind of accidental. Well, there were a couple of different things that were developed, one of which wasn't by design, and, when they were combined, they realized that they could do these nanotech things. But would they have thought to put those things together if Clarke or those few other writers hadn't written about them, first?

[Note: Isaac Asimov did not write Fantastic Voyage. I don't know if any of you thought this, but I certainly did. I have the book! No, he only adapted it. It actually started out as a movie, and Asimov was hired to write the adaptation which was actually released before the movie came out, which confused matters even more, because even people at the time thought that the movie was the adaptation of the book. I say all of that to say this (because I found it interesting): Asimov improved the story. He felt that there were some logical inconsistencies in the movie, and he fixed all of those things in the book. After reading about them, I have to say that Asimov was correct.]


  1. Oh. I always thought he wrote that. I've learned something else new today :-)

  2. Very well researched and comprehensive post, Andrew. :)

    I believe scientists are much more concerned with understanding the things they already know are there and are possible, while science-fiction writers (and fans) are more concerned with what's not yet possible but plausible. The relationship, in my opinion, is that science fuels sci-fi with accuracy, and sci-fi fuels science with vision.

  3. I think the medical applications are where we would benefit most.

  4. Fantastic Voyage freaked me out as a kid.

    Also, if our roads were as narrow and restricted on both sides by stone walls and medieval buildings like they are in Europe, we'd drive small cars too! We'd have to. Also, the car I rented in the UK was a diesel and got 50 MPG. Wish we had that here as well.

  5. A whole post about nano tech and nary a mention of the grey goo problem? I wrote a whole short story about that.

    Still, the last couple of posts have been exceptionally well done. Great stuff!

  6. I think people still like big cars in part because while technology makes machines smaller, it's not making people smaller. If anything by allowing us to sit on our butts all the time people are getting BIGGER. Plus it helps some people feel important to have a huge land yacht. For women giant SUVs and trucks have become like sports cars for middle-aged guys, a way to make up for their deficiencies, in this case of being short. You know, some woman who's five-foot-nothing gets a Suburban so she can feel BIG on the roads.

  7. There's some technology that's starting to get bigger again. My new phone is much larger than my old one. But you should see my friend's phone. I think it was responsible for sinking the Titanic.

    As usual, a great post.

  8. Wait, what's the Grey Goo problem? I was all set to refer you to "The Office" and "Phineas and Ferb" because your post was very smart and well-written, causing me to feel threatened and therefore causing me to want to dumb it down, but I saw Rusty's comment and now I'm worried that there's something I missed about "the grey goo," and ergo, I feel MORE threatened and need to bring the dumb, MORE.


    (That is a raspberry, in typing.)

    Anyhow, well done. Informative. And it made me go look up the "Health Care" episode of "The Office":

    Dwight: Damnit! Damnit Jim!
    Dwight: All right, who did this? I'm not mad. I just want to know who did it so I can punish them.
    Jim: What are you talking about?
    Dwight: Uh, someone forged, uh, medical information and that is a felony.

    Jim: OK, whoa. 'Cause that is a pretty intense accusation. How do you know that they're fake?

    Dwight: Uh, leprosy? Flesh eating bacteria. Hot-dog fingers. Government-created killer nanorobot infection.

    As a person who suffers from "Hot-dog fingers," I took it personally.

    Also, on Phineas & Ferb, the boys created a submarine which they then shrunk to send into a chihuahua but their sister Candace ate the egg salad sandwich instead, and they had to try to make her throw up while she was on her date with Jeremy. I love that show. But now that I know it's not truly nanotechnology, is a little of the magic gone? It is.

  9. I so agree with you. Magic isn't science (stupid muggles), but science is definitely magic. And I sort of wish they would stop making cell phones smaller. I keep losing them. Though I do hope they work on making elephants smaller. I always wanted a teacup elephant as a pet. Maybe nanotechnology can take care of that for me.

  10. Not everything is getting smaller. People are getting bigger. Obesity is on the rise and there are huge people everywhere. Maybe people will get so big that their fingers will get so fat that cell phones will have to start becoming larger to accommodate them.

  11. Sarah P: Yeah, me, too. That's why I have the book (even if I haven't gotten around to reading it).

    Vero: That's probably a good way of looking at it. I do think scientists are often to practical to look at things with a creative eye. They get trapped in the box, so to speak.

    Alex: That's certainly possible and probably the largest area of research, at the moment.

    L.G.: Wow! 50mpg! Our Prious doesn't even get that.

    Rusty: Well, you know, that's not a technology we're -trying- to invent. I also didn't talk about AI taking over the world.
    I do, however, want to read Engines of Creation, now.

    Grumpy: Actually, nanotech -could- help people get smaller. There is work being done with that in regards to the obesity issues in America.

    M.J.: But does it have more stuff in it? That's the big question.

    Briane: Have you seen Invader Zim? You really need to see Invader Zim.

    S.L.: There are some people that believe that making animals tiny is the only way to keep them from going extinct. My issue with that is that a tiny elephant isn't really an -elephant-. If that makes sense.
    Maybe, you need an app where your phone starts beeping if you get too far away from it. Or it could yell, "help me! help me! Don't leave me!"

    Michael: Well, I wasn't really including people in the "things" category...

    John: Thanks! And thanks for stopping in!

  12. You're right, a mini elephant just ins't the same, but my parents never got me the life sized one I asked for on my fifth birthday and I'm still devastated. This seems like the next best option.

    I changed my ringtone to R2D2 and that helped a little. But I really just need to put the darn thing on LoJack.

  13. S.L.: I did love the little miniature zoo idea in Spy Kids. That would be the coolest thing in the world to have as a kid.

    You should make it so that R2 does that sad noise when you get too far away. That would be hilarious. Speaking of R2, have you seen Beneath the Dome?