[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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[CBC Radio One]

Science FACTion

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 the trimmings.

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 nanotechnology."

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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