Book Review "Nano" No spoilers

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Thu Sep 02 2004 - 23:16:00 MDT

By John Robert Marlow

This book is on topic here being fiction about the Singularity, having
Vernor Vinge on the back cover and Eliezer in the acknowledgments.

And Vinge is right in what he says, the book will make a spectacular movie.

But oh man is it painful to read. Not because of the story line. Even if
a bit predictable it's ok for Matrix type violent adventure.

The problem is the "science," or rather what is supposed to pass for science.

Nanotechnology is not magic and most of my complaints are about gross
violation of conservation of mass, thermodynamics, mass flows, doubling
times and the like. But that's not all the places it will irritate
you. On page 133 the good guys are trying to see who the bad guys are by
analyzing a depleted uranium bullet. "We should have a signature on the
uranium by the end of the day; from there we'll have the nation and reactor
core of origin."

I know what this story bit is imitating--Tom Clancy's excellent "Sum of all
Fears" where the origin of plutonium in a bomb is determined. But depleted
uranium that's used for things like bullets never went near a
reactor. It's "depleted" of the easy to fission isotope U235. This is the
kind of error a knowledgeable editor should have caught.

In another place Marlow describes an invisible aircraft, one that has light
emitters on it that make the surface of the aircraft look like the
background and the story line makes use of the invisible properties of the
aircraft. It is reasonable to assume that we could eventually have
aircraft surfaces that can display the view blocked by the aircraft. But
if you think about it, to do this you have to know exactly what direction
you want to fool someone. Otherwise, you don't know what background to
present. This is applying pre high school geometry and a bit of logic.

The scenes with nanotechnology devices are every bit as bad. Toward the
end of the book he has nano disassemblers eating away at a sea port
city. In a short time they have created a hole where massive amounts of
sea water is pouring in. So where did a fair fraction of a cubic mile of
dirt go?

Early in the book the hero stops a car in seconds by growing a huge redwood
tree in the middle of the street. Now, nanotechnology *can* grow redwoods
a good deal faster than the natural way, but not *that* fast, not starting
with a tenth of a cubic centimeter of nano machines. Eric Drexler makes a
case for doubling in an energy- and material-rich environment of 20
minutes. Estimating a redwood at meter square by 100 meters tall, growing
from a 0.1 cc is an expansion of a billion, 10 exp 9. Since 10 exp 3 is
about 2 exp 10, we are talking 30 doubling, ten hours by Drexler's estimate.

And you don't even want to think about Marlow's understanding of
thermodynamics. Someone told him that heat is a problem when making nano
things fast. So he "solves" it thus:

"Thermal problems?" . . . . "If it becomes a problem you assemble water
for evaporative cooling, then grab the atoms in the vapor and do it over


(Grabbing the vapor returns every bit of heat evaporation took away, and
"assembling" water from atoms releases the searing heat of an oxy hydrogen

I am reminded of the first "chemistry" teacher I had in high school. First
day he told us that boiling water was a chemical reaction that broke up the
water into hydrogen and oxygen which was called "steam."

About half way into the first semester the FBI took him away. Fortunately
for Mr. Marlow they don't do that for authors making mistakes. <grin>

The shame is that with some advice on science and engineering the story
could have been written so that it didn't violate physical laws and been
just as exciting.

As Dr. Vinge says, it will make a spectacular movie. But if you know even
a little about science and engineering reading the book will irritate the
heck out of you.

Keith Henson

PS If you want an example of high adventure that does not violate physical
laws try _The Revolution from Rosinante_ by Alexis A Gilliland. A bit
dated (1981) but still it has an excellent treatment of computers that
transcend humans and are starting to take care of them the way humans take
care of cats.

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