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What's the Big Idea?
Copyright © 2002 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer
Robert J. Sawyer
writes and presents a weekly science column for
the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBC Radio One.
The columns, which have the umbrella title
Science FACTION: Commentaries from the Cutting Edge of Science,
are produced by Barbara Saxberg in Toronto, and
syndicated to local CBC Radio stations across Canada.
Recorded 29 October 2002
Host: We're used to devices shrinking in size. The
first computers filled entire rooms. Now, more powerful machines
fit in the palms of our hands. But just how tiny can technology
get? Here's science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, with the big
news about getting small.
Robert J. Sawyer: There's a new science on the horizon
that will change everything. It's called nanotechnology,
and it's all about building things up from the atomic level. The
prefix "nano" comes from the Greek for "billionth" because
nanotechnology works on the scale of a billionth of a metre, down
in the realm of individual atoms.
The key to nanotech is the assembler, a specially shaped
cluster of atoms that acts like a little arm. It can latch onto
other atoms, and position them in any pattern the laws of physics
will allow. For instance, an assembler could take a lump of coal,
nudge the carbon atoms around, and produce a flawless diamond.
Or the assemblers could take the pile of kitchen scraps left over
from today's meal, and turn them into a roast turkey breast for
tomorrow's dinner. No need to actually raise a turkey on a farm,
or even to cook it: just shuffle the garbage atoms around, and
voilà a piping-hot roasted bird, complete with all
Sound Effect: Microwave ding (the "It's done!" sound)
Just about anything is possible when you can rearrange atoms. The
world's roads are made of asphalt and concrete which is
composed mostly of carbon and silicon atoms. Assemblers could
rearrange those atoms into solar cells, and pave them over with
clear diamond. Bye-bye energy crisis.
Likewise, nanotechnology will enable us to clean up oil spills,
by converting the oil into other hydrocarbons such as
French fries that would float on the water, and could be scooped
up in nets and then eaten.
Of course, French fries are bad for your heart but not to
worry. Nanotech will be able to go right inside our bodies,
rearranging the atoms that compose the plaque hardening our
arteries, rebuilding arthritic joints, turning fat into muscle,
and even repairing or revising our DNA.
What's more, nanotech will be virtually free of charge
because the assemblers can turn raw materials into any pattern of
atoms including other assemblers. Drug pushers are
infamous for saying the first one's free ... and then charging a
fortune for all that follow. But with assemblers, it's exactly
the opposite: the first one may be expensive to create, but then
all the rest as many as you'd like are free, made
by the assemblers themselves from whatever raw materials are at
hand. Nanotech has the potential to do everything from putting an
end to famine, to cleaning up pollution, to making human beings
virtually immortal and in the process, it will destroy
capitalism. There will be no more haves and have-nots.
Business and government are taking nanotech very seriously. In
September 2002, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee unanimously passed
The 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development
Act, which, in the words of Joe Lieberman, the bill's
co-sponsor, was "a very big step forward for this very small
technology," adding that "Nowhere in the world are the wheels of
innovation spinning more rapidly than in the realm of
And Canada is following suit. Earlier this year, the Canadian
NanoBusiness Alliance was formed. It's lobbying for our government
to take similar steps.
For more information on nanotech, have a look on the web at
Foresight.org that's "Foresight" as in "looking ahead,"
not as in "Saga." Foresight is a nonprofit educational
institution founded by Eric Drexler, whose 1986 book Engines
of Creation started the nanotech revolution. I'm a
science-fiction writer; big ideas are my stock-in-trade. But the
stuff on his web site blows my mind.
Sound Effect: Assemblers working away
I'm Robert J. Sawyer.
More Good Reading
Other "Science FACTion" commentaries for CBC Radio
"2020 Vision" scenarios for Discovery Channel Canada
Media backgrounder on Rob Sawyer
Rob's novel Fossil Hunter, which deals with nanotechnology
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