Wednesday, December 17, 2008

soft machines

... blowing the dust off another old book review originally published in Chemistry World -- this title is now available as paperback, and I vaguely remember I really liked it.

Soft Machines: nanotechnology and life
by Richard A. L. Jones
Oxford University Press 2004

There are two different approaches to overcoming the gap between science and the general public. Many scientists, myself included, have been trying to popularise what they think people should know about science, building their bridge from the science side of the canyon. Fewer, but much more successful in terms of bestsellers lists are the examples of non-scientists like Bill Bryson or scientists converted to populism, who build the bridge from the other shore, starting from what non-scientists actually want to read.

Soft machines is a beautiful example of the former school of thinking, a nicely written account of what a physicist thinks the public should know about nanotechnology. Richard Jones, a polymer researcher and professor of physics at the University of Sheffield, leads us into the nanoworld from the physics entry, starting with imaging and fabrication methods, then explaining what makes nanoscale mechanics so different from the world we know. He then comes to the core of the book, two chapters on the “soft machines” of the title, and another two on computing and electronics on the nanoscale. He rounds off the book with a very short chapter on future opportunities and risks.

The book serves up a fair amount of real science, made palatable with original metaphors and a light sprinkling of anecdote. Thus, it is ideally suited for us chemists, as we are close enough to physics to understand the odd equation that Jones throws in, and distant enough to benefit from this change of perspective. But for the non-scientists whose scientific education is on the level of “A short history of nearly everything”, this book is probably too hard. I wish the general public would make an effort to read such books, but my royalty statements tell me loud and clear that they don’t.

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