Book review

published in

Quarterly Review of Biology 76(December 2001):486


Note: This web version is derived from an earlier draft of the paper and may possibly differ in some substantial aspects from the final published paper.



Book Title:  Travels to the Nanoworld: Miniature Machinery in Nature and Technology

Author:        Michael Gross

Publisher:    Perseus Publishing, Cambridge Massachussetts, 1999

                    (first paperback printing, January 2001)



This book provides the nonspecialist reader with a good, if incomplete, introduction to the background and current state of nanotechnology.  Biology anticipates molecular machinery;  proteins and RNA comprise the central nanomachines of living cells.  These nanomachines act as chemical processors (enzymes), molecular motors (myosin), assembly devices (ribosomes, chaperones) and disassembly devices (proteasomes), photon antennas (rhodopsin), structural elements (cytoskeleton), and communications links for extracellular (hormonal) and intracellular (G protein) signaling.


Biotechnology and macromolecular chemistry are important pathways leading toward nanotechnology.  Gross describes numerous interesting and useful nanomaterials including dendrimers, self-assembling peptide nanotubes that can form artificial ion channels in cell walls, quantum dots, fullerenes and carbon nanotubes (believed useful for molecular electronics), mechanically interlocked multi-ring molecular knots and loops (catenanes), self-assembled all-DNA wire-frame nanostructures (cubes, polygons, etc.), self-replicating peptide molecules, monolayers and microstamping, conductive polymers, and artificial enzymes.


While self-assembly is well-covered, Gross almost entirely neglects positional assembly approaches to manufacturing – as exemplified both by ribosomes and by automobile assembly lines.  Missing are microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) pathways to nanotechnology (no mention of the Nippondenso rice-grain-sized hand-assembled working electric car), direct molecular manipulation via atomic force microscope (AFMs are mentioned only briefly for biomolecule imaging but not for pick-and-place operations), and positional covalent mechanochemistry (already demonstrated experimentally) such as might be employed in future molecular assemblers.


I enjoyed reading the book but regret that younger scientists who could be building nanorobots in 1-2 decades might erroneously be discouraged from such worthy endeavors by Gross’ pessimistic assessment of this potential.  Gross’ “harsh criticism” (p. 207) targets the early popular writings of K. Eric Drexler, mostly dating from the 1980s, and recycles ancient arguments against the possibility of nanoscale machinery that were soundly refuted in Nanosystems (Wiley, 1992), Drexler’s subsequent and most important technical Ph.D. work – which Gross fails to cite in his book.



Reviewed by:


Robert A. Freitas Jr.

Author, Nanomedicine (Landes Bioscience, 1999)

Research Scientist, Zyvex Corp.

1321 North Plano Road, Richardson, TX  75081