chapter  16
NANOTECHNOLOGY
ByCOLIN MILBURN
Pages 11

Worlds within worlds: this ancient idea found new life during the development of modern atomic theory. Although the notion of an “atom” as the fundamental building block of matter had been postulated since antiquity, dating back at least to the pre-Socratic philosophies of Democritus and Leucippus, it was only in the nineteenth century that the atom ceased to be a purely metaphysical entity and instead acquired physical dimensions and measurable properties. Concretized by a series of key events – including Dalton’s atomic theory in 1803, Mendeleev’s periodic table of the elements in 1869, the discoveries of the electron in 1897 and the proton in 1909, and various interpretations of atomic structure, such as the planetary models advanced by Rutherford and Bohr – the atom eventually became an everyday scientific object. It also became a discursive topos, a space of the cultural imaginary increasingly used as the setting for fictional narratives. In the early decades of the twentieth century, a wave of stories depicting molecules, atoms, and sub-atomic particles as worlds unto themselves flooded the literary marketplace, making a particular splash in American pulp magazines devoted to the literature of science fiction. Quickly converging on a set of shared narrative conventions and rhetorical techniques, stories such as James Barr’s “The World of the Vanishing Point” of 1922, G. Peyton Wertenbaker’s “The Man from the Atom” of 1923, John Russell Fearn’s “Worlds Within” of 1937, and countless others began to speculate about human expeditions into the depths of matter, thus giving rise to a sub-genre of science fiction known as the “microcosmic romance” (Stableford 2006). Despite their occasional attempts to explain basic concepts of chemistry and

physics, these stories as a whole are concerned less about the technical accuracy of their plot devices – indeed, most of them flagrantly disregard or grossly misrepresent relevant facts of nature – than about the cultural implications and philosophical quandaries pertaining to human exploration of sub-microscopic worlds. They function as allegories of the scientific encounter with infinitesimal scales of matter, rendering in literary form the discovery of atoms and molecules as realms of physical investigation, desire, and technological exploitation. They not only index a technoscientific worldview that takes the atomic scale as newly

open for human occupation and conquest, but yet more proactively, they contribute a set of generic storylines and tropes that facilitate the cognitive mapping of radically different scales. Consequently, they offer figurative ways of understanding the very, very small world of atoms and molecules as a resource for practical technologies in our own world. In sharp contrast to the discourse of atomic energy and nuclear weaponry that began to appear in the same period, these stories of the microcosm represent not explosion but exploration: building, dwelling, and thinking within the atomic world. In this regard, the literature of sub-microscopic adventure paved the way, decades in advance, for the technical field that today claims the world of sub-microscopic matter as its own: namely, nanotechnology. To be sure, nanotechnology – whose purpose is manipulation and control of

the structure of matter at the scale of nanometers, the size domain of individual atoms and molecules – has had a long and entangled relationship with science fiction (Milburn 2008). As the nanoscientist Chad Mirkin explains: “Born of the science fiction community, nanotechnology unfortunately has far-fetched vestiges of the past (such as discussions of the development of nanorobotics with artificial intelligence) intimately intertwined with the essence and proposals of credible and doable science” (Mirkin 2001). The speculative visions guiding a number of nano research programs, not to mention those motivating international funding initiatives and flows of venture capital, have frequently involved promises about technological revolutions and utopias that seem so far off in the future as to appear more fantastic than realistic. Moreover, the fact that many prominent nanoscientists often discuss far-fetched scenarios as possible achievements for nanotechnology sometimes makes it seem that many of the most characteristic concepts and aspirations of the field have been ripped from the pages of pulp fiction. For example, the famous 1959 lecture by the Nobel laureate Richard

Feynman, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” (1960) – typically considered to be the first scientific articulation of what would later be called nanotechnology – envisioned tiny machines built “from the bottom up,” molecule by molecule. But Feynman’s particular idea of using an interconnected series of mechanical “hands” to manipulate the molecules was borrowed from Robert A. Heinlein’s novella Waldo of 1942, whose “pantographic” method of matter manipulation also recalls Edmond Hamilton’s earlier microcosmic romance, “The Cosmic Pantograph” of 1935 (Regis 1995: 152-54; Milburn 2008: 46-49). K. Eric Drexler, regarded by many as “the father of nanotechnology” because he launched the first continuous research program to be called nanotechnology (later specified as “molecular nanotechnology”), while simultaneously popularizing its radical potential, has likewise relied extensively on science fiction motifs in his publications. His Engines of Creation (1986), which inspired a vast audience about the world-changing possibilities of molecular machines, overflows with science fiction stories, alongside insightful commentaries on the relationship between

science fiction and real science. Similarly, Richard Smalley, who received the Nobel Prize for his co-discovery of fullerenes (the first class of molecules to be widely associated with nanotechnology), often referred to the “space elevator” from Arthur C. Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise of 1979 as something that fullerene nanotechnology might eventually make real (Yakobson and Smalley 1997). Other examples abound. While some professional scientists were taking inspiration from science fiction

in the development of nanotechnology, so too were many science fiction writers running with the ideas of nanotechnology in their books, thus helping to promote and advance the conceptual dimensions of the field. During nanotechnology’s formative years, novels such as Greg Bear’s Blood Music of 1985, Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz of 1994, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age of 1995, Wil McCarthy’s Bloom of 1998, Michael Crichton’s Prey of 2002, Rudy Rucker’s Postsingular of 2007, and myriad others contributed to public and professional dialogues about the promises and perils of this new technoscience (Hayles 2004; Thacker 2004). But at an even more fundamental level, science fiction helped shape the field

of nanotechnology by incubating the narrative templates or scripts through which the scientific exploration of nanoscale worlds entered into discourse. Although cresting many decades before Feynman directed our attention to all that “room at the bottom” – that “very, very small world” at the atomic level of matter (Feynman 1960) – the wave of microcosmic adventures in the early decades of the twentieth century buoyed a consistent and now familiar mode of narrating the human encounter with infinitesimal entities inside a submicroscopic environment. This narrative form and its associated tropes, perpetuated by texts such as Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man of 1956 and the film Fantastic Voyage of 1966, would later be widely adopted by the scientific discourse of nanotechnology – particularly in the rhetorical construction of its custodial size regime: the generic space of nanotechnological investigation commonly known as the “nanoworld.” Borrowing freely from the venerable traditions of the utopian romance and

the extraordinary voyage, and in particular cribbing from the storytelling models of scalar and dimensional comparison made famous in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels of 1726, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland of 1865, and Edwin Abbott’s Flatland of 1884, the early tales of microcosmic romance clustered around a literary novum – or fictional innovation – that would prove the condition of possibility for imagining a real nanotechnology: that human beings would one day not only visually observe the fundamental building blocks of matter, but would actually travel down to that scale, navigate the atomic landscape, and rebuild the world from the bottom up. Although some stories decorated this novum with references to contemporary notions of atomic structure – especially the “miniature solar system” image – the key conceit would remain the physical voyage through scale as such, not the fabulated detail of any

scientific theory or technological vehiculation through which the voyage might take place. Indeed, while stories like James Blish’s “Nor Iron Bars” of 1959 might rely on

a serious emplotment of quantum mechanics and relativity to depict sub-atomic travel, others, like Mark Twain’s “The Great Dark” of 1898, simply gesture to the power of dreams to suggest how people might journey below the threshold of visibility. The narrative template of the microcosmic romance most prototypically involves the discovery of the sub-microscopic realm as a potential place for human visitation, triggering a subsequent pattern of romantic desire and territorial colonization. This formal structure for relating the human adventure in the infinitesimal world crystallized in the revisionary transition between two foundational texts: Fitz-James O’Brian’s “The Diamond Lens” and Ray Cummings’s “The Girl in the Golden Atom.” Published in 1858, “The Diamond Lens” would seem to be the inaugural

scientific romance to depict the discovery of small worlds inside the atomic spaces of our own world. A brief controversy about the story’s originality arose at the time of publication, however, due to a journalistic rumor that O’Brian may have lifted from an unpublished manuscript by William C. North entitled “Microcosmos.” Regardless, O’Brian repeatedly asserted the absolute originality of his idea (O’Brian 1858). “The Diamond Lens” features a scientist who constructs a powerful diamond microscope that enables him to peer into the sunken universe, to “pierce through all the envelopes of matter down to its original atom” (O’Brian 1885: 9). He looks into a drop of dew and discovers a beautiful maiden down there, inside the strange atomic landscape. The scientist dubs her “Animula” and promptly falls in love, but from a distance: “The planet Neptune was not more distant from me than she” (28). He becomes frustrated with the “solitary pleasures” (5) of the voyeur: he can see her but never touch her, separated from her world by an irresolvable barrier of scale. And as her little dewdrop begins to dry up under the light of his microscope, the scientist can do nothing but watch in horror as she shrivels and dies before his eyes. The story is about the impossibility of connecting: literally, the impossibility

of connecting the macroscale world to the nanoscale world – although more metaphorically, perhaps, the impossibility for lovers to ever truly connect with each other. It attends to the imaginary limitations produced by what the film theorist Christian Metz describes as spectatorial “senses at a distance” – vision and hearing – which may create longing and desire, but, as registers of distance, can only ever incite dissatisfaction and unrequited love (Metz 1982: 59). In O’Brian’s story, the advances of science have managed to surpass the Rayleigh limit of visual resolution (the inherent limitation of microscopes that rely on the wavelengths of visible light, which cannot resolve atomic structures), thereby opening a “window” onto the atomic world. But such technical virtuosity means nothing but “gazing on this lovely wonder” (28) across an insurmountable wall: “No invention of which human intellect was capable could break down the

barriers that nature had erected” (30). In “The Diamond Lens,” the hope for human access to the nanoworld abruptly comes to a dead end. But half a century later, in 1919 when Ray Cummings wrote “The Girl in the

Golden Atom,” the impossible no longer seemed quite so impossible. With considerably less anxiety about originality, Cummings begins with the identical premise – a scientist builds an ultramicroscope to peer into the depths of matter, sees a tiny girl inside the golden atoms of his mother’s wedding ring, and falls in love – but then takes the story in a startlingly new direction. Dismissing any natural limitations of physics and biology, Cummings’s heroic scientist (“the Chemist”) conjures a chemical method of shrinking his body, and he goes on a romp down inside the microcosm. As the personal assistant of Thomas Edison, Cummings shared the view that the capabilities of science were limitless, that technical ingenuity could eventually overcome any obstacle – including “physical law” itself (a view instantiated in the genre of heroic inventor stories inspired by Edison, known today as the Edisonade). Cummings’s microcosmic Edisonade therefore satisfies, by fiat, the impossible

desire to enter the atomic world and discover there an entirely new life and a new future (in the sequel of 1920, “The People of the Golden Atom,” the Chemist’s buddies descend into the atomic world and join the adventure. Both stories were combined as a book in 1922). “The Girl in the Golden Atom” does not offer a blueprint for how scientists might actually make good on this vision – it’s clearly a romance, a purely fantastical notion – but the basic point is that, as far as the literary imagination is concerned, atoms are no longer untouchable. Physical reduction of the sensory dimensions of the human body puts the scientific spectator directly in contact with the nanoworld. What began as a window now becomes a door: “The only solution … was to find some way of making myself sufficiently small to be able to enter that other universe” (Cummings 1922: 10). The human enters the microcosm. This conceit likewise underwrites the

scientific discourse of nanotechnology. Although technical investigation of the nanoworld began with visualization across distance – as the biochemist and science writer Michael Gross explains, “Windows onto the nanoworld have been opened since the middle of [the twentieth] century by techniques such as electron microscopy, X-ray crystallography, neutron scattering, and nuclear magnetic resonance” (Gross 1999: 20) – the goal of manipulating individual atoms with precision demands the capability of discretely touching them: in other words, a shift from voyeurism to carnal knowledge. If this shift first appeared in literature with Cummings’s rewriting of O’Brian, it later appeared in rhetoric surrounding the first scientific instrument to enable both nanoscale resolution and atomic manipulation: the scanning tunneling microscope (STM). The STM became a foundational tool for nanotechnology because it operates

through physical proximity to the nanoworld, rather than spectatorial distance. The STM images the atomic landscape by scanning a fine probe across a conducting sample, keeping the tip close enough to the atomic surface to register

a quantum tunneling current (where electrons from the sample spontaneously “tunnel” into the atoms of the probe tip), and measuring surface topography through changes in the current. Thus, the STM “sees” atoms by touching them, and it can grasp them and move them around in the same way. Scientists who work with the STM often portray it as a means of shrinking the

body and the senses to the scale of atoms: “The STM-tip can be considered the ‘eyes,’ ‘hands,’ and ‘ears’ of scientists connecting our macroscopic world to the exciting atomic and nanoscopic world” (Hla 2008: 6065). From its earliest days, the STM has been figured as a tiny human agent in this exciting new world. Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohrer, who invented the STM in 1981 and received the Nobel Prize for their accomplishment in 1986, have graphically conceptualized the STM as a human body reduced to minute proportions, with a little “finger” outstretched to caress the denizens of the nanoworld (Binnig and Rohrer 1999: S324). Thus modern science enters the nanoworld. For thanks to the STM and related instruments, as the scientists Christoph Gerber and Hans Peter Lang have said, “the door to the nanoworld was pushed wide open” (Gerber and Lang 2006: 4). Passing through this gaping door, scientific adventurers can now trace the steps of Cummings’s Chemist and inhabit a new world. As the chemist John I. Brauman has put it: “There is, indeed, room at the bottom, and we are beginning to move in” (Brauman 1991: 1277). Nanotechnology would here seem to follow “The Girl in the Golden Atom”

in gratifying that forbidden desire registered by “The Diamond Lens”: “What would I not have given to have had the power to precipitate myself into that luminous [atomic] ocean and float with her [Animula] through those grooves of purple and gold!” (29). Once upon a time, nanoscale entities were the objects of unrequited longing; as the biochemist Arthur Kornberg attests in his 1989 memoir, For the Love of Enzymes: The Odyssey of a Biochemist, the voyage launched by the early molecular sciences was driven by such an impossible love affair. But with the new instruments of nanotechnology, suddenly the virginal maidens of the nanoworld can be touched, and embraced. As Binnig and Rohrer have written, “atoms, molecules, and other nanometer-sized objects are no longer ‘untouchables.’ They forsook their anonymity as indistinguishable members of a statistical ensemble and became individuals. We have established a casual relationship with them” (Binnig and Rohrer 1999: S327). Don Eigler, one of the first scientists to successfully manipulate individual atoms with an STM, has emphasized the erotic nature of this relationship: “We knew them [nanoscale entities] in a purely cerebral way. But here they are, alive to our eyes and responsive to our hands … [They] evoke a delectable intimacy between us and the quantum world” (Eigler quoted in Frankel 2005: 261). But having attained such intimacy, the scientific adventure in the microcosm

quickly turns to thoughts of conquest. Reflecting the frontier ideology of the pulp Western and the space opera, the microcosmic romance typically depicts the atomic universe as a savage new world, open for mastery and

colonization – and thereby inheriting all the noxious patterns of racism and jingoism that have characterized the history of colonial expansion into various terrestrial frontiers. For example, in S.P. Meek’s “Submicroscopic” (1931), the cowboy scientist Courtney Edwards discovers a technique for “adjusting” the dimensions of normal matter (taking advantage of Rutherford’s demonstration that atoms are mostly empty space, considering relative distance between the nucleus and electrons). He shrinks himself down to the sub-microscopic world of Ulm (for purposes of big game hunting!) and discovers a racially divided battlezone, where cannibalistic “blacks” are in perpetual conflict with civilized “whites,” and where the landscape, as Edwards tells is, resembles the American frontier: “Dotted about on the plain were small stone structures, which reminded me of the old blockhouses which used to be erected on our own plains to guard against Indian raids. That, in fact, was the exact function of these structures” (Meek 1931: 81). Thanks to his trusty firearm (he imports a Colt .45 into the microcosm, demonstrating once again how the West was won) and his power of matter adjustment, Edwards rescues a white girl from the “savages” (she turns out to be Princess Awlo), instantly falls in love with her, and decides to join her people. Marrying the princess and becoming Crown Prince of the whites, Edwards plans to pacify this wild world once and for all by importing an arsenal of guns and other technologies from his home country, thus replaying a familiar history of Western imperialism staged in the form of scientific discovery (Albanese 1996; Campbell 1999; Otis 1999). But Edwards soon learns that this world “at the limit of smallness” (78) is

not simply a space of savagery and backwardness, but also a land of high-tech science and futuristic inventions made possible by the strange physics of the submicroscopic world. In the sequel “Awlo of Ulm” (1931), another local civilization of cruel, “saffron yellow” technocrats tries to take over Ulm (echoing other racist “Yellow Peril” fictions of the period). The yellow people have invented any number of miraculous technologies, including powerful machinic battlesuits and remote energy projection systems. Edwards goes to war against them, turning their own technologies to his advantage. Curiously, all races of this world speak “some dialect of Hawaiian” (75) – a plot element that makes little realistic sense, but nonetheless pre-emptively marks the indigenous peoples of the microcosm as subjects of U.S. expansionism. To be sure, the world of Ulm is suddenly destroyed before the end of the

story by a careless deus ex machina “prospector,” who unrepentantly smashes it while digging for gold on the Nevada frontier: “I reckon a man can prospect where he pleases” (152). Luckily, Edwards manages to return to his proper size beforehand, bringing back a wealth of new knowledge, along with Princess Awlo, whom he claims in the name of the United States: “You have ceased to be Awlo, Sibimi of Ulm, and will henceforth have to content yourself with being Mrs. Courtney Edwards, citizen of the United States of America” (153). Similar figurations of the nanoworld as a crucible of indigenous knowledge and

technology which might be “imported” into our world or otherwise put to advantage feature in many stories from this period, including R.F. Starzl’s “Out of the Sub-Universe” of 1928, Festus Pragnell’s “The Green Man of Graypec” of 1935, and Theodore Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God” of 1941. In the scientific discourse of nanotechnology, as well, the nanoworld regularly

appears as a wild frontier, ready to plunder. Gregory Timp has suggested that he and other nanoscientists are “explorers of a new frontier; a frontier that exists on the head of a pin. … [We] are motivated by curiosity, and the promise of intellectual and monetary rewards … to map the terra incognita of a microscopic world” (Timp 1999: 2). This mythic notion has similarly manifested in the “quantum corral” experiments of Don Eigler and his colleagues, who employed an STM to fabricate atomic rings for “capturing” electrons (Crommie, Lutz, and Eigler 1993).Aiming for “complete control of the atomic landscape” (IBMAlmaden Visualization Lab 1995), these pioneering experiments evoke Wild West associations of corrals as both livestock enclosures and temporary forts. At the same time, other nanotechnology theorists have described the nanoworld as a land of bounty … and booty. According to Michael Gross, the “technologies that will result from the conquest of the nanoworld may revolutionize not only the world of science but also daily life as well” (Gross 1999: 21). The scientists Dominique Luzeaux and Thierry Puig affirm this point: the goal of nanotechnology is nothing less than “the conquest of the nanoworld” (Luzeaux and Puig 2007). Although its swashbuckling tendencies set the stage for such rhetorical acts of

nanoworld invasion, the genre of microcosmic romance also generated cautionary narratives and forms of self-reflexive critique. For example, by the end of Harl Vincent’s “Microcosmic Buccaneers” of 1929, it is rather ambiguous who the real pirates are: the technocratic slaveholders who rule the atomic world, or the human scientists who travel down to that world, fomenting genocide and abducting maidens. Equally critical of technocratic ideology, Henry Hasse’s “He Who Shrank” of 1936 animates the possibility that our increasing mastery of matter might inadvertently put our own world at risk. Against his will, a young science student is forcibly sent by his professor on a downward journey through scales, descending ever deeper into the structure of matter. As he shrinks, he passes through worlds within worlds at various stages of technological complexity: the exploration of minute scales of matter becomes a travelogue of possible civilizations, possible futures. He describes a telepathic Enlightenment society; a Stone Age society; a postbiological society of Pure Intelligences; and, at the center of the text, a space-age society of astounding technological accomplishment: “A civilization that had achieved space travel must be a marvelous civilization indeed” (Hasse 1936: 758). But upon investigation, it turns out to be a post-apocalyptic world where autonomous technology has gone out of control:

The thing that terrified me was that these machines were scurrying about the surface all in apparent confusion, seemed to cover the entire globe,

seemed to have a complete civilization of their own, and nowhere was there the slightest evidence of any human occupancy, no controlling force, no intelligence, nothing save the machines. … Other machines builded [sic] and assembled and adjusted intricate parts, and when the long process was completed the result was – more machines! … A city, a continent, a world, a civilization of machines!