Molecular Nanotechnology and Literature
Imagine a world where you could have anything you wanted. Gold? Here it is. A new car? Presto. Diamonds? Oh, here, please have some of mine, there's more in the back. Of course, this is not our world at the present, but it might be the world of the future. Molecular nanotechnology
will be able to provide whatever one needs or wants, for free or for a minuscule amount of payment. However, it will not only affect commercial and material goods. It will affect medicine, war and weaponry, law enforcement, espionage, entertainment, disposal of waste and garbage, and even literature
. Literature will perhaps be affected in a greater way than one may think. But before I get to that, let me explain what, exactly, molecular nanotechnology is.
In l 959, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman
put forth an idea. His idea was that anything could be made from the ground up, out of individual atoms or molecules. This is nanotechnology: the working or manipulation of individual atoms or molecules, one at a time, and positioning and lining them up precisely and repeatedly, until enough accumulated to form a large-scale, usable entity. Feynman didn't name it and outline the science, however. This was done by K. Eric Drexler. In the 1970's, when he was a student at MIT, Drexler came up with an idea of nanotechnology, and outlined the possible uses of it. He thought that if one had the ability or technology to work with individual atoms and molecules, then one could make a box that would transform common materials into beef. It sounds strange, but that was the idea. The idea was that you could open the door, toss in some stuff, work the controls, and two hours or so later: out rolls some fresh beef. It sounds odd because we are taught that beef comes from cattle, not from a box of grass clippings and old sneaker insoles. But it really does make sense. Cattle use only a few materials when making beef: grass, air, water, sunlight. When they are digesting that junk, they are merely rearranging the molecules to form characteristic patterns of beef. The only real difference between the methods of beef-production of cows and Drexler's box is that cows make beef using enzymes and liquids, where reactive agents randomly collide, and Drexler's box makes beef mechanically.
Drexler states that the molecules and atoms would have to be manipulated by tiny, tiny robots, commonly referred to as "assemblers." This, along with his "meat machine," is what makes skeptics and critics call nanotechnology "science-fiction." It is just too far out there to some, they think the idea of creating anything you want from garbage is impossible. I think hearing critics say this is funny, because Jules Verne's writing was considered science-fiction, and yet, we've made numerous sojourns into space and to the moon. Who's to say that the same won't happen with nanotechnology? Drexler, in his document entitled "Testimony of Dr. K. Eric Drexler on Molecular Nanotechnology before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space," states that he wouldn't be surprised to see large-scale applications of nanotechnology in the world in the next 15 years. The biggest problem that skeptics have with Drexler and nanotechnology is their common argument that atoms couldn't possibly be manipulated as if they were bricks, and couldn't pin them down in one place. They also bring up thermal agitation. Molecules are always jostling and bouncing around, so how could you make a mechanical device out of parts which never stood still? Also, radiation and friction. These would destroy and mangle the little nanotechnological machines beyond repair, and their jobs would not be completed. However, these have all been overcome. In 1989, at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California, individual atoms were moved, bodily manipulated, and pinned down to spell out "IBM." This was done despite thermal agitation, radiation, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and everything else. After this was done, there was a burst of enthusiasm and creativity on the atomic-level as researchers around the globe felt the need to do things like "write their names out in atoms, spell the word Peace in sulfur molecules, and draw sketches of Albert Einstein in a medium of mixed ions" (Regis 12). Drexler, in his testimony to the Senate Committee, also showed a videotape of a working planetary gear which was made by himself and Ralph Merkle, a full-time nanotechnology researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. The planetary gear takes the rotation of the inner shaft and converts it to the slower rotations of many smaller shafts. The smaller shafts (or "planet" gears) rotate around the larger, inner shaft ("sun" gear), hence the name "planetary gear." Anyhow, Drexler and Merkle made a functioning planetary gear from exactly 3, 557 individual atoms, all arranged precisely, all chemical bonds correct.
In the future, nanotechnology will affect literature in a big way,.but it has only affected it in a small way, and indirectly, in the present. In the past few years, there have been many short stories and comic book episodes, and a few novels, written about nanotechnology. Most of these condemn it: the tiny robot assemblers will run amok, destroying and consuming whatever gets in their path, ultimately destroying humankind and life as we know it. But other stories outline how the future will be altered without being destroyed. Neal Stephenson's novel The Diamond Age is an example, and it is from this that I can show the other way in which literature will be affected by nanotechnology. The Diamond Age details the story of a young girl named Nell, and how she grows up. She is raised by The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, a piece of intellectual property created for the grand-daughter of a rich and powerful man, and which accidentally falls into Nell's hands when she is four years old. The Primer does not operate as does a normal book. It is semi-intelligent. The nano-thingies can change and rearrange according to the wishes of the reader, and do things like show a picture of what's happening in the story at the moment, expand the story in more detail, and actually teach a reader about a subject in the book. The most obvious thing that would then be present in literature is the idea of hyper-text. lf the book has a store of or access to outside information, it could easily give more information on any subject in the text. Nell, in The Diamond Age, does this frequently by doing as all young children must, and continually asks, "Why?" Another thing is that, with the use of the nano-machines, a reader could interact with the book, take an active role in the story's telling or analyzation.
No one knows where nanotechnology will take us in the future, or indeed, if it will go anywhere at all. Once the means to produce nanotechnological wonders are met, the world around us will change, and the worlds we know in literature will do the same.
Regis, Ed. Nano. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995.
Stephenson, Neal. The Diamond Age. New York: Bantam Books, 1996.