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Hacking Matter: Levitating Chairs, Quantum Mirages, and the Infinite Weirdness of Programmable Atoms [Paperback]


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Book Description

24 Mar 2004
Programmable matter is probably not the next technological revolution, nor even perhaps the one after that. But it's coming, and when it does, it will change our lives as much as any invention ever has. Imagine being able to program matter itself-to change it, with the click of a cursor, from hard to soft, from paper to stone, from fluorescent to super-reflective to invisible. Supported by organizations ranging from Levi Strauss and IBM to the Defense Department, solid-state physicists in renowned laboratories are working to make it a reality. In this dazzling investigation, Wil McCarthy visits the laboratories and talks with the researchers who are developing this extraordinary technology, describes how they are learning to control it, and tells us where all this will lead. The possibilities are truly astonishing.

Product details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; Reprint edition (24 Mar 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465044298
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465044290
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 1.5 x 20.3 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,512,812 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"The book's science is solid and McCarthy's fervor genuinely infectious. The future never felt so close."

About the Author

Wil McCarthy is a novelist, the science columnist for the SciFi channel, and the Chief Technology Officer for Galileo Shipyards, an aerospace research corporation. Hacking Matter is an expansion of an article that appeared in Wired in October 2001. He lives in Lakewood, Colorado.

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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A focused yet wandering introduction to quantum materials 30 Jun 2003
By Richard Soderberg - Published on Amazon.com
I purchased this book for the title alone, while shelf-browsing at ETcon 2003; to see a non-fiction book discussing programmable matter on the cover was enough to catch my attention.
I found it a casual, yet enjoyable read; it threads gently through the prerequisite background, glossing over the specific details to keep the primary focus of the book intact; as it turned out, this didn't affect my enjoyment at all, while providing lots of jumping-off points for the interested observer to research further.
Managing to not get distracted by the fact that such things as "electron shells" and "thermochromatics", it introduces the reader (educated as they may or may not be) to the concept of a kind of material whose properties can be changed at will, by humans (not just nature). The core concept at hand is "quantum dots", and the text returns over and over again to this, diverging occasionally to provide anecdotes, or ways these semi-magical materials have already been (or soon, could be) used.
Overall, I felt the book a good read; if you're looking for an introduction into the world of quantum dots, dynamically modifiable materials, and science the likes of which one would formerly have expected from science fiction. It's not a book in which can be found explicit technical details, though there's more than a hundred references in the end-of-book bibliography; for that alone, it would be a perfect entry point for research.
Highly recommended.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If you're interested 1 Jan 2006
By PJJ - Published on Amazon.com
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating overview of research and possible applications 21 April 2003
By William T. Katz - Published on Amazon.com
"Hacking Matter" deserves 4-5 stars for addressing a very interesting topic - artificial atoms - and 3-4 stars for its presentation. The book can be divided into two parts. The first section, about 110 of the book's 200 pages, gives us a tour of actual research in solid-state physics and its implications for material science. The second launches us from real developments to speculative devices and applications. McCarthy tries to focus the book on programmable matter and only touches on other aspects of nanotechnology. I think that's a great idea, but it should have afforded him the opportunity for deeper explanations of research and ideas that were only briefly described.
McCarthy is facile with language, as might be expected from a writer of fiction. But while the reading flows easily, the first section suffers from an uneven handling of the material. For example, McCarthy delays the discussion of atomic orbitals until the middle of the book, and even then it's a watered-down introduction with the reader directed to a freshman chemistry textbook for more information. Given the complexity of the topic, I felt he should have assumed a certain level of reader compentency, start with a more detailed review of the atom with better diagrams of orbitals and material characteristics, then build from there and drop the "monkey on limbs" analogy. In contrast to some areas of hand-holding explanation, some quotes from physicists, given without further explanation, assume a certain level of sophistication from readers:
"In general, high temperatures tend to equal more interactions, because there are a lot more blackbody photons emitted from hot surfaces, which can then be absorbed and destroy atomic superpositions. But photon-photon interactions have such a low cross section you don't have to worry about it for optical quantum states. A photon that's in a quantum superposition is therefore going to be a lot more stable at room temperature." (p. 71)
Perhaps it's praise to McCarthy that I wanted more of the first 100 pages -- like a thorough introduction to atoms and how material properties arise, side-by-side diagrams of natural and artificial atoms in terms of scale, electron density plots, more details on the research, etc. It's fascinating stuff and there are references at the end of the book.
The speculative portion of the book, although it occasionally veers from the focus on programmable matter, is well-written and thought-provoking. McCarthy notes that the interviewed researchers are reluctant to speculate, and he steps into that void and presents some possibilities. One chapter describes a hypothetical construct for handling an array of quantum of dots: a "Wellstone Fiber" invented and submitted for a patent by McCarthy and his partner.
Back in the late 80s, K. Eric Drexler, referenced at least twice in "Hacking Matter," used his book "Engines of Creation" to speculate on possible directions for nanotechnology, well ahead of actual technical developments. While some of Drexler's ideas may not be realistic, he did galvanize interest in the subject. I can't help but think McCarthy is trying to play that role for artificial atoms and the funding of condensed matter physics research. For those of us who don't think that much about material science, this book provides a good wake-up call in the form of an entertaining read.
4.0 out of 5 stars Incredibly cool and entertaining 10 Dec 2004
By Kismet - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I think the previous reviewers have not been keeping up with the leaps and bounds that technology has been making with quantum dots. They exist folks and they are being used as we speak. While the applications for this technology as discribed in this book are not possible at this point in time, they should no longer be considered impossible. Just type 'quantum dots' in your search engine or check out some of the popular science websites. This is real and it is utterly facinating. Definately a good book but you'll need to read up on some basic quantum mechanics first to really enjoy it (the reason I gave it 4 stars and not 5).
5.0 out of 5 stars Quantum dots 30 Dec 2008
By PK - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have no degrees in physics, just a bit of curiosity and for me this book was wonderful. A very well written (for laymen) brief on a technology that is just over the horizon. If only half the apllications he describes are realized, wellstone will change our lives.
I was left with only one (whimsical) question about wellstone; could you build a ringword with it?
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