Unbounding the Future:

the Nanotechnology Revolution

Chapter 2

The Molecular World

Nanotechnology will be a bottom-up technology, building upward from the molecular scale. It will bring a revolution in human abilities like that brought by agriculture or power machinery. It can even be used to reverse many of the changes brought by agriculture or power machinery. But we humans are huge creations with no direct experience of the molecular world, and this can make nanotechnology hard to visualize, hence hard to understand.

Scientists working with moleculas face this problem today. They can often calculate how molecules will behave, but to understand this behavior, they need more than heaps of numbers: they need pictures, movies, and interactive simulations, and so they are producing them at an ever-increasing pace. The U.S. National Science Foundation has launched a programm in "scientific visualization", in part to harness supercomputers to the problem of picturing the molecular world.

Molecules are objects that exert forces on one another. If your hands were small enough, you could grab them, squeeze them, and bash them together. Understanding the molecular world is much like understanding any other physical world: it is a matter of understanding size, shape, strength, force, motion, and the like–a matter of understanding the differences between sand, water, and rock, or between steel and soap bubbles. Today's visualization tools give a taste of what will become possible with tomorrow's faster computers and better "virtual realities," simulated environments that let you tour a world that "exists" only as a model inside the computer. Before discussing nanotechnology and how it relates to the technologies of today, let's try to get a more concrete understanding of the molecular world by describing a simulation embedded in a scenario. In this scenario, events and technologies described as dating from 1990 or before are historically accurate; those with later dates are either projections or mere scenario elements. The descriptive details in the simulation are written to fit designs and calculations based on standard scientific data, so the science isn't fiction.

Exploring the Molecular World

In a scenario in the last chapter, we saw Joel Gregory manipulating molecules in the virtual reality of a simulated world using video goggles, tactile gloves, and a supercomputer. The early twenty-first century should be able to do even better. Imagine, then, that today you were to take a really long nap, oversleep, and wake up decades later in a nanotechnological world.

In the twenty-first century, even more than in the twentieth, it's easy to make things work without understanding them, but to a newcomer much of the technology seems like magic, which is dissatisfying. After a few days, you want to understand what nanotechnology is, on a gut level. Back in the late twentieth century, most teaching used dry words and simple pictures, but now—for a topic like this—it's easier to explore a simulated world. And so you decide to explore a simulation of the molecular world.

Looking through the brochure, you read many tedious facts about the simulation: how accurate it is in describing sizes, forces, motions, and the like; how similar it is to working tools used by both engineering students and professionals; how you can buy one for your very own home, and so forth. It explains how you can tour the human body, see state-of-the-art nanotechnology in action, climb a bacterium, etc. For starters, you decide to take an introductory tour: simulations of real twentieth-century objects alongside quaint twentieth-century concepts of nanotechnology.

After paying a small fee and memorizing a few key phrases (any variation of "Get me out of here!" will do the most important job), you pull on a powersuit, pocket a Talking Tourguide, step into the simulation chamber, and strap the video goggles over your eyes. Looking through the goggles, you seem to be in a room with a table you know isn't really there and walls that seem too far away to fit in the simulation chamber. But trickery with a treadmill floor makes the walk to the walls seem far enough, and when you walk back and thump the table, it feels solid because the powersuit stops your hand sharply at just the right place. You can even feel the texture of the carvings on the table leg, because the suit's gloves press against your fingertips in the right patterns as you move. The simulation isn't perfect, but it's easy to ignore the defects. On the table is (or seems to be) an old 1990s silicon computer chip. When you pick it up, as the beginners' instructions suggest, it looks like Figure 1A. Then you say, "Shrink me!", and the world seems to expand.


Frame (A) shows a hand holding a computer chip. This is shown magnified 100 times in (B). Another factor of 100 magnification (C) shows a living cell placed on the chip to show scale. Yet another factor of 100 magnification (D) shows two nanocomputers beside the cell. The smaller (shown as block) has roughly the same power as the chip seen in the first view; the larger (with only the corner visible) is as powerful as mid-1980s mainframe computer. Another factor of 100 magnification (E) shows an irregular protein from the cell on the lower right, and a cylindrical gear made by molecular manufacturing at top left. Taking a smaller factor of 10 jump, (F) shows two atoms in the protein, with electron clouds represented by stippling. A final factor of 100 magnification (G) reveals the nucleus of the atom as a tiny speck.

Vision and Motion

You feel as though you're falling toward the chip's surface, shrinking rapidly. In a moment, it looks roughly like Figure 1B, with your thumb still there holding it. The world grows blurrier, then everything seems to go wrong as you approach the molecular level. First, your vision blurs to uselessness—there is light, but it becomes a featureless fog. Your skin is tickled by small impacts, then battered by what feel like hard-thrown marbles. Your arms and legs feel as though they are caught in turbulence, pulling to and fro, harder and harder. The ground hits your feet, you stumble and stick to the ground like a fly on flypaper, battered so hard that it almost hurts. You asked for realism, and only the built-in safety limits in the suit keep the simulated thermal motions of air molecules and of your own arms from beating you senseless.

"Stop!" gives you a rest from the suit's yanking and thumping, and "Standard settings!" makes the world around you become more reasonable. The simulation changes, introducing the standard cheats. Your simulated eyes are now smaller than a light wave, making focus impossible, but the goggles snap your vision into sharpness and show the atoms around you as small spheres. (Real nanomachines are as blind as you were a moment ago, and can't cheat.) You are on the surface of the 1990s computer chip, between a cell and two blocky nanocomputers like the ones in Figure 1D. Your simulated body is 50 nanometers tall, about 1/40,000,000 your real size, and the smaller nanocomputer is twice your height. At that size, you can "see" atoms and molecules, as in Figure 1E.

The simulation keeps bombarding you with air molecules, but the standard settings leave out the sensation of being pelted with marbles. A moment ago you were stuck tight to the ground by molecular stickiness, but the standard settings give your muscles the effective strength of steel—at least in simulation—by making everything around you much softer and weaker. The tourguide says that the only unreal features of the simulation have to do with you—not just your ability to see and to ignore thermal shaking and bombardment, but also your sheer existence at a size too small for anything so complex as a human being. It also explains why you can see things move, something about slowing down everything around you by a factor of 10 for every factor of 10 enlargement, and by another factor to allow for your being made stronger and hence faster. And so, with your greater strength and some adjustments to make your arms, legs, and torso less sticky, you can stand, see, feel, and take stock of the situation.

Molecular Texture

The ground underfoot, like everything around you, is pebbly with atom-sized bumps the size of your fingertips. Objects look like bunches of transparent grapes or fused marbles in a variety of pretty but imaginary colors. The simulation displays a view of atoms and molecules much like those used by chemists in the 1980s, but with a sharper 3-D image and a better way to move them and to feel the forces they exert. Actually, the whole simulation setup is nothing but an improved version of systems built in the late 1980s—the computer is faster, but it is calculating the same things. The video goggles are better and the whole-body powersuit is a major change, but even in the 1980s there were 3-D displays for molecules and crude devices that gave a sense of touching them.

The gloves on this suit give the sensation of touching whatever the computer simulates. When you run a fingertip over the side of the smaller nanocomputer, it feels odd, hard to describe. It is as if the surface were magnetic–it pulls on your fingertip if you move close enough. But the result isn't a sharp click of contact, because the surface isn't hard like a magnet, but strangely soft. Touching the surface is like touching a film of fog that grades smoothly into foam rubber, then hard rubber, then steel, all within the thickness of a sheet of corrugated cardboard. Moving sideways, your fingertip feels no texture, no friction, just smooth bumps more slippery than oil, and a tendency to get pulled into hollows. Pulling free of the surface takes a firm tug. The simulation makes your atom-sized fingertips feel the same forces that an atom would. It is strange how slippery the surface is—and it can't have been lubricated, since even a single oil molecule would be a lump the size of your thumb. This slipperiness makes it obvious how nano-scale bearings can work, how the parts of molecular machines can slide smoothly.

But on top of this, there is a tingling feeling in your fingers, like the sensation of touching a working loudspeaker. When you put your ear against the wall of the nanocomputer, you flinch back: for a moment, you heard a sound like the hiss of a twentieth—century television tuned to a channel with no broadcast, with nothing but snow and static—but loud, painfully loud. All the atoms in the surface are vibrating at high frequencies, too fast to see. This is thermal vibration, and it's obvious why it's also called thermal noise.

Gas and Liquid

Individual molecules still move too quickly to see. So, to add one more cheat to the simulation, you issue the command "Whoa!", and everything around seems to slow down by a factor of ten.

On the surface, you now can see thermal vibrations that had been too quick to follow. All around, air molecules become easier to watch. They whiz about as thick as raindrops in a storm, but they are the size of marbles and bounce in all directions. They're also sticky in a magnetlike way, and some are skidding around on the wall of the nanocomputer. When you grab one, it slips away. Most are like two fused spheres, but you spot one that is perfectly round—it is an argon atom, and these are fairly rare. With a firm grip on all sides to keep it from shooting away like a watermelon seed, you pinch it between your steel-strong fingers. It compresses by about 10 percent before the resistance is more than you can overcome. It springs back perfectly and instantly when you relax, then bounces free of your grip. Atoms have an unfamiliar perfection about them, resilient and unchanging, and they surround you in thick swarms.

At the base of the wall is a churning blob that can only be a droplet of water. Scooping up a handful for a closer look yields a swarm of molecules, hundreds, all tumbling and bumbling over one another, but clinging in a coherent mass. As you watch, though, one breaks free of the liquid and flies off into the freer chaos of the surrounding air: the water is evaporating. Some slide up your arm and lodge in the armpit, but eventually skitter away. Getting rid of all the water molecules takes too much scraping, so you command "Clean me!" to dry off.

Too Small and Too Large

Beside you, the smaller nanocomputer is a block twice your height, but it's easy to climb up onto it as the tourguide suggests. Gravity is less important on a small scale: even a fly can defy gravity to walk on a ceiling, and an ant can lift what would be a truck to us. At a simulated size of fifty nanometers, gravity counts for nothing. Materials keep their strength, and are just as hard to bend or break, but the weight of an object becomes negligible. Even without the strength-enhancement that lets you overcome molecular stickiness, you could lift an object with 40 million times your mass–like a person of normal size lifting a box containing a half-dozen fully loaded oil tankers. To simulate this weak gravity, the powersuit cradles your body's weight, making you feel as if you were floating. This is almost like a vacation in an orbital theme park, walking with stickyboots on walls, ceilings, and whatnot, but with no need for antinausea medication.

On top of the nanocomputer is a stray protein molecule, like the one in Figure 1E. This looks like a cluster of grapes and is about the same size. It even feels a bit like a bunch of grapes, soft and loose. The parts don't fly free like a gas or tumble and wander like a liquid, but they do quiver like gelatin and sometimes flop or twist. It is solid enough, but the folded structure is not as strong as your steel fingers. In the 1990s, people began to build molecular machinery out of proteins, copying biology. It worked, but it's easy to see why they moved on to better materials.

From a simulated pocket, you pull out a simulated magnifying glass and look at the simulated protein. This shows a pair of bonded atoms on the surface at 10 times magnification, looking like Figure 1F. The atoms are almost transparent, but even a close look doesn't reveal a nucleus inside, because it's too small to see. It would take 1,000 times magnification to be able to see it, even with the head start of being able to see atoms with your naked eye. How could people ever confuse big, plump atoms with tiny specks like nuclei? Remembering how your steel-strong fingers couldn't press more than a fraction of the way toward the nucleus of an argon atom from the air, it's clear why nuclear fusion is so difficult. In fact, the tourguide said that it would take a real-world projectile over a hundred times faster than a high-powered rifle bullet to penetrate into the atomic core and let two nuclei fuse. Try as you might, there just isn't anything you could find in the molecular world that could reach into the middle of an atom to meddle with its nucleus. You can't touch it and you can't see it, so you stop squinting though the magnifying glass. Nuclei just aren't of much interest in nanotechnology.

Puzzle Chains

Taking the advice of the tourguide, you grab two molecular knobs on the protein and pull. It resists for a moment, but then a loop comes free, letting other loops flop around more, and the whole structure seems to melt into a writhing coil. After a bit of pulling and wrestling, the protein's structure becomes obvious: It is a long chain–longer than you are tall, if you could get it straight—and each segment of the chain has one of several kinds of knobs sticking off to the side. With the multicolored, glassy-bead portrayal of atoms, the protein chain resembles a flamboyant necklace. This may be decorative, but how does it all go back together? The chain flops and twists and thrashes, and you pull and push and twist, but the original tight, solid packing is lost. There are more ways to go wrong in folding up the chain than there are in solving Rubik's Cube, and now that the folded structure is gone, it isn't even clear what the result should look like. How did those twentieth-century researchers ever solve the notorious "protein folding problem"? It's a matter of record that they started building protein objects in the late 1980s.

This protein molecule won't go back together, so you try to break it. A firm grip and a powerful yank straightens a section a bit, but the chain holds together and snaps back. Though unfolding it was easy, even muscles with the strength of steel—the strength of Superman—can't break the chain itself. Chemical bonds are amazingly strong, so it's time to cheat again. When you say, "Flimsy world–one second!" while pulling, your hands easily move apart, splitting the chain in two before its strength returns to normal. You've forced a chemical change, but there must be easier ways since chemists do their work without tiny superhands. While you compare the broken ends, they thrash around and bump together. The third time this happens, the chain rejoins, as strong as before. This is like having snap-together parts, but the snaps are far stronger than welded steel. Modern assembler chemistry usually uses other approaches, but seeing this happen makes the idea of molecular assembly more understandable: Put the right pieces together in the right positions, and they snap together to make a bigger structure.

Remembering the "Whoa!" command, you decide to go back to the properly scaled speed for your size and strength. Saying "Standard settings!," you see the thrashing of the protein chain speed up to hard-to-follow blur.


At your feet is a ribbed, ringed cylindrical object about the size of a soup can—not a messy, loosely folded strand like the protein (before it fell apart), but a solid piece of modern nanotechnology. It's a gear like the one in Figure 1E. Picking it up, you can immediately feel how different it is from a protein. In the gear, everything is held in place by bonds as strong as those that strung together the beads of the protein chain. It can't unfold, and you'd have to cheat again to break its perfect symmetry. Like those in the wall of the nanocomputer, its solidly attached atoms vibrate only slightly. There's another gear nearby, so you fit them together and make the atomic teeth mesh, with bumps on one fitting into hollows on the other. They stick together, and the soft, slick atomic surfaces let them roll smoothly.

Underfoot is the nanocomputer itself, a huge mechanism built in the same rigid style. Climbing down from it, you can see through the transparent layers of the wall to watch the inner works. An electric motor an arm-span wide spins inside, turning a crank that drives a set of oscillating rods, which in turn drive smaller rods. This doesn't look like a computer; it looks more like an engineer's fantasy from the nineteenth century. But then, it is an antique design–the tourguide said that the original proposal was a piece of exploratory engineering dating from the mid-1980s, a mechanical design that was superseded by improved electronic designs before anyone had the tools to build even a prototype. This simulation is based on a version built by a hobbyist many years later.

The mechanical nanocomputer may be crude, but it does work, and it's a lot smaller and more efficient than the electronic computers of the early 1990s. It's even somewhat faster. The rods slide back and forth in a blur of motion, blocking and unblocking each other in changing patterns, weaving patterns of logic. This nanocomputer is a stripped-down model with almost no memory, useless by itself. Looking beyond it, you see the other block–the one on the left in Figure 1D–which contains a machine powerful enough to compete with most computers built in 1990. This computer is a millionth of a meter on a side, but from where you stand, it looks like a blocky building looming over ten stories tall. The tourguide says that it contains over 100 billion atoms and stores as much data as a room full of books. You can see some of the storage system inside: row upon row of racks containing spools of molecular tape somewhat like the protein chain, but with simple bumps representing the 1s and 0s of computer data.

These nanocomputers seem big and crude, but the ground you're now standing on is also a computer–a single chip from 1990, roughly as powerful as the smaller, stripped-down nanocomputer at your side. As you gaze out over the chip, you get a better sense for just how crude things were a few decades ago. At your feet, on the smallest scale, the chip is an irregular mess. Although the wall of the nanocomputer is pebbly with atomic-scale bumps, the bumps are as regular as tile. The chip's surface, though, is a jumble of lumps and mounds. This pattern spreads for dozens of paces in all directions, ending in an irregular cliff marking the edge of a single transistor. Beyond, you can see other ridges and plateaus stretching off to the horizon. These form grand, regular patterns, the circuits of the computer. The horizon–the edge of the chip–is so distant that walking there from the center would (as the tourguide warns) take days. And these vast pieces of landscaping were considered twentieth-century miracles of miniaturization?

Cells and Bodies

Even back then, research in molecular biology had revealed the existence of smaller, more perfect machines such as the protein molecules in cells. A simulated human cell–put here because earlier visitors wanted to see the size comparisons–its on the chip next to the smaller nanocomputer. The tourguide points out that the simulation cheats a bit at this point, making the cell act as though it were in a watery environment instead of air. The cell dwarfs the nanocomputer, sprawling across the chip surface and rearing into the sky like a small mountain. Walking the nature trail around its edge would lead across many transistor-plateaus and take about an hour. A glance is enough to show how different it is from a nanocomputer or a gear: it looks organic, it bulges and curves like a blob of liver, but its surface is shaggy with waving molecular chains.

Walking up to its edge, you can see that the membrane wrapping the cell is fluid (cell walls are for stiff things like plants), and the membrane molecules are in constant motion. On an impulse, you thrust your arm through the membrane and poke around inside. You can feel many proteins bumping and tumbling around in the cell's interior fluid, and a crisscrossing network of protein cables and beams. Somewhere inside are the molecular machines that made all these proteins, but such bits of machinery are embedded in a roiling, organic mass. When you pull your arm out, the membrane flows closed behind. The fluid, dynamic structure of the cell is largely self healing. That's what let scientists perform experimental surgery on cells with the old, crude tools of the twentieth century: They didn't need to stitch up the holes they made when they poked around inside.

Even a single human cell is huge and complex. No real thinking being could be as small as you are in the simulation: A simple computer without any memory is twice your height, and the larger nanocomputer, the size of an apartment complex, is no smarter than one of the submoronic computers of 1990. Not even a bendable finger could be as small as your simulated fingers: in the simulation, your fingers are only one atom wide, leaving no room for the slimmest possible tendon, to say nothing of nerves.

For a last look at the organic world, you gaze out past the horizon and see the image of your own, full-sized thumb holding the chip on which you stand. The bulge of your thumb rises ten times higher than Mount Everest. Above, filling the sky, is a face looming like the Earth seen from orbit, gazing down. It is your own face, with cheeks the size of continents. The eyes are motionless. Thinking of the tourguide's data, you remember: The simulation uses the standard mechanical scaling rules, so being 40 million times smaller has made you 40 million times faster. To let you pull free of surfaces, it increased your strength by more than a factor of 100, which increased your speed by more than a factor of 10. So one second in the ordinary world corresponds to over 400 million here in the simulation. It would take years to see that huge face in the sky complete a single eyeblink.

Enough. At the command "Get me out!", the molecular world vanishes, and your feeling of weight returns as the suit goes slack. You strip off the video goggles—and hugely, slowly, blink.

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