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Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life Paperback – 29 Nov 2007

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Product details

  • Paperback: 228 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford (29 Nov 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199226628
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199226627
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 1.3 x 15.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 837,803 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Having had the chance to delve... into our copy, we find it refreshing to see a book about nanotechnology that is a) readable, b) covers all the issues, c) understandable to the layman and d) written by someone who knows what they are talking about. We can't think of another example that punches all of these buttons. (TNTlog)

Like a knowledgeable host making dinner conversation, Jones moves from topic to topic with a stream of lively banter. [...] By the end of the book, Jones's vivid descriptions and diverse examples have made me a believer. He tells us again and again to look inside cells for inspiration, for methods and for raw materials when faced with this challenging new world. Biological evolution may not have found the best possible solutions to problems of nanoscale engineering, but as Jones says at the close of the book, "I would be very surprised if we can do better." (American Scientist, by David S. Goodsell)

Soft Machines is an informative and readable exploration of the nanoworld: length scales, energies, forces, the tools used in the exploration, the importance of Brownian motion and van der Waals (surface) forces, quantum effects and band structures, nanotubes and quantum dots, etc. (Foresight Nanotech Update)

From the Author

Soft Machines – Nanotechnology and Life
By Richard A.L. Jones

A brief introduction.

There’s probably no technology that’s more debated, more discussed and more misunderstood right now than nanotechnology. I wrote Soft Machines to explain just what nanotechnology is now and what it will be in the future. Will it lead to a new form of artificial life that’s ultimately going to replace us? Or is it just a new and trendy name for chemistry and materials science?

Nanotechnology, to some people, is the new technology that’s going to revolutionize the world. Tiny robots, each no bigger than bacteria, will be able to make anything from any ingredients; they’ll end poverty and make the environment pristine again. Enthusiasts imagine tiny submarines, like the one in that 60’s science fiction film Fantastic Voyage, able to swim around in our bloodstreams, curing all illnesses, maybe even allowing people to live for ever.

But every utopia has its dark side, and some people fear that if we can make these nanobots, they may get out of our control. Michael Crichton’s new thriller "Prey" illustrates this possibility chillingly and when the film is released this autumn I’m sure we’ll hear much more about this. The ultimate catastrophe is if the nanobots reproduce out of control, eating everything and turning the world into GREY GOO!

Many scientists, technologists and business people think that both the utopia and the dystopia are just the stuff of science fiction, great for thrillers but nothing to worry about in the real world. To them nanotechnology is a business opportunity. We’ll be able to control matter on the atomic scale, but rather than making nanobots, we’ll just make better sunscreen, stain resistant trousers and other mundane but lucrative products.

The man who invented nanotechnology, the word nanotechnology, was K. Eric Drexler in a best selling book published some 15 years ago called "Engines of Creation". He argued that we know it must be possible to make nanobots because life itself is made of them – all the tiny machines in our cells and in the cells of all living things are working examples of natural nanotechnology. So if we could make artificial versions of these nanomachines we would have nanotechnology. But we would make the machines not from the soft squidgy materials of biology but from hard, strong materials like diamond. So we’d be making something like life but stronger and tougher and more durable. That’s why we would have to worry that this new artificial type of life might replace the old, soft and squidgy version.

I think that Drexler is half right. It must be possible to make nanomachines because we know that nature does it. But what if nature uses soft and squidgy stuff because that’s what works best? A car might be faster and stronger than a horse, but is it necessarily so that diamond nanobots are tougher than bacteria. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that nature uses squidgy materials because on the tiniest of length scales that’s what works best. The physics of small things is different to the physics of big things, and when you design for the nanoscale you need to take that into account.

My book explains why nanoscale machines need to be soft machines, like the machinery of life, rather than the machinery of cogs and gears, of the macroscopic world. It explains why life is the way it is, and that if we want to make nanobots we should copy nature and make them soft. It is this kind of soft nanotechnology that could lead to all sorts of advances, like new life saving and life enhancing treatments in medicine, super-fast computers, and cheap and clean renewable energy from the sun.

And what about grey goo? As we understand just how clever and appropriate nature’s nanoscale designs are, I think we’ll be a little less cocky about able to design something better ourselves. Soft Machines describes how we might go about copying nature in nanotechnology, but it’s going to be a very long time before we can surpass nature. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By C. Gilgallon on 5 Feb 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In the 1980s K. Eric Drexler wrote his famous book on nanotechnology 'Engines of Creation' and created a storm of interest in highly advanced diamond based nanomachines, a view of nanotechnology which has been ingrained in the public subconscious ever since. However, speak to any modern day nanoscientist and they will tell you that his work is highly speculative and contains a number of serious holes. Many would be even more dismissive.

In this book, Professor Richard Jones presents a more balanced perspective on the issue. He starts by saying that he does believe advanced tiny machine based nanotechnologies are possible, but that Drexler - with his dry, hard system - is barking up the wrong tree. Here Jones makes the case for, as the title suggests, soft machines, based to some extent on nature, or rather, the principles that nature operates on. The fact is - and one of the reasons there is such an interest in nanoscience - that things work differently when they are small, and we should bare this in mind when making small things, rather than just trying to shrink our 'big world' machines down. Nature is of course the one working example of nanorobots, and it does not work based on scaled down mechanical / electrical engineering principles, but by exploiting physics of the nanoscale - Brownian motion, quantum effects, diffusion, etc, and it can do remarkable things by doing so.

Jones's views are grounded in modern scientific understanding, but unlike many, he has actually tried to address the Drexler view and say why he is sceptical rather than just dismissing it out of hand or ignoring the issue entirely.
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By Chandani on 7 Dec 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Easy to read. Ready to be used in a school of applied sciences, though I missed practical tips and pictures.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Mole TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 1 Aug 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The book wasn't quite what I was looking for - but I still found it of interest. It's aimed more at the the type of person that has an interest in biology, and the potential for therapeutic application of nanotechnology. However, I felt that it missed out on a number of key points - I would suggest combining this book with the work by Drexler for a better understanding of the subject.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3 reviews
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
plenty of room at the bottom, but it's sticky and shaky 25 Jun 2007
By William Uspal - Published on
Format: Hardcover
What is nanotechnology? Much of what has fallen under that label has been incremental extension of established engineering practices and technologies to the nanoscale, e.g. improvements in planar silicon fabrication. How much longer can this continue? A more radical vision is that of K. Eric Drexler and his followers, who foresee precise positional control and construction of "assemblers" and "nanofactories" based on the chemistry of carbon. Is this vision -- which spawned much speculative literature and the grey goo scenario of out of control replicators -- feasible?

Jones argues that a wholly different approach will have to be adopted -- an approach suited to the peculiar physics of the nanoscale, where fluctuations and Brownian motion dominate, where surfaces are sticky, and where even quantum field theory (in the Casimir effect) conspires to frustrate the Drexlerian machinist.

Rather than try to work around the physics of the nanoscale, Jones proposes that we use it to our advantage -- just as biological soft "nanotechnology" does. Brownian motion and adhesion energy, for instance, make self-assembly possible. Just as proteins spontaneously fold to their native conformations and just as lipid membranes spontaneously assemble and fold into liposomes, we can design molecules to spontaneously achieve useful three dimensional conformations. We can imitate proteins by coupling conformational changes to molecular recognition and environmental changes, the principle which makes a host of protein activities -- signaling, sensing, catalysis -- possible. While traditional Carnot heat engines fail on the nanoscale, we are now beginning to understand the principles of isothermal molecular motors, such as those used for intracellular transport.

I very much recommend this book for its synoptic overview of current nanotechnology and the challenges facing it. Explanations of physical principles are clear and precise, and would benefit the layman and the researcher alike. Jones has much else to say about evolution, systems biology, silicon vs. single molecule electronics, etc. I only regret that he only cursorily discusses bionanotechnology (as opposed to biomimetic synthetic nanotechnology), i.e. what he calls the "Mad Max" approach of stripping down and reengineering working biological nanosystems, which he only introduces in the last chapter. He rightly is concerned about public opposition and even unforeseen consequences of this approach, but I would like to know more about what it has made possible.

Still, I very much recommend this underappreciated book (no reviews yet?) which I think is on par with Purcell's paper "Life at Low Reynolds Number" and Vogel's "Life's Devices" -- a science writing gem.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Supurb analysis of nanotec possibilities AND limitations 26 Jun 2008
By Earle Bowers - Published on
Format: Paperback
Before reading this book I was familiar with the conjecture that MNT (molecular nano-technology)devices will tend to be more like nonascale biological components than macroscale machines and suspected there was some truth to it. This book tends to confirm that hypothesis but gives so much more and in such readable detail.

An advantage is that the author, Jones, is not a biologist but a physist, and his approack deals with the physical phenomina of brownian motion (shaking by thermally excited molicules), surface effects like van der Walls forces and viscosity, and the ways these forces can be taken advantage of rather than fought by unconventional machine components like shape changing molicules for valves and isothermal motors at this scale.

Jones and colleagues are themselves involved with development of nanoscale motors using these techniques and the book also covers the equally weird information processing and transduction devices which are likely to be most useful at this size range, again emphysizing similarities to biocomponents but by no means suggesting that we limit ourselves to slavishly using or copying them.

Later in the book he does get into the physical limitations of the dimonoid assemblers and such originally proposed by Eric Drexler, but this book is by no means simply a put down of another researcher's ideas or cat fight between them.

As a view of what short and medium term MNT is likely to be like I can not think of a better source. While this text uses little mathematics it does manage to rigorously lay out the underlying physical laws that will limit some types of construction at this size range but also provide some new and almost magic seeming possibilities.

Over-all I would say this book contains les "hype" about nanotechnology than any I have come across, presenting facts instead.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Fresh Book 18 Sep 2010
By Luis F. Recio Alonzo - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book provides a refreshing view of Nanotechnology. I recommend it to anyone that wants to read about Nanotech, as one of the first "must read" in the subject. Well explained, it is really going to take you on a nice journey to that fascinating small world.
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