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“No Small Matter” – A connoisseur’s guide to delicate work
Andrew Maynard   Jan 20, 2010   2020 Science  

How do you write a book about something few people have heard of, and less seem interested in? The answer, it seems, is to write about something else.

Felice Frankel and George Whitesides have clearly taken this lesson to heart. Judged by the cover alone, their new book No Small Matter: Science at the Nanoscale is all about science in the Twilight Zone of the nanoscale—where stuff doesn’t behave in the way intuition says it should. 

imageOpen the cover, and you are drawn into a seductive world of stunning images and poetic prose, that reveal as much about the authors’ passions and delights as the science that drives them. Finish the book, and you will have a far more sophisticated grasp of nanotechnology than most of your friends and, dare I say it, many of the people currently working in the field.  Because this is the sleight of hand that Frankel and Whitesides pull – by not writing about nanotechnology, they have published what is perhaps the best book on the subject to date!

But all this is besides the point.  Because more than anything, No Small Matter is about the delight of understanding and appreciating better the world in which we find ourselves.  This is a book that is simple enough for a child to appreciate, and subtle enough to keep the most cynical intellectual engaged.  It’s the sort of book I would strongly recommend you read (and read again) – not because I think you should, but because I think you’ll enjoy it.

The key to this remarkable book – and I choose my words carefully here – is the synergy between Frankel’s images and Whitesides’ prose (see these excerpts for an example).  Whitesides’ writing is poetic, engaging – it draws you in.  Even re-reading the book for this review, I find myself savoring the lines.  It’s not that Whitesides avoids long words and complex ideas – try this one for size for instance: “Anthropomorphizing capillarity into affection or avarice is misleading but unavoidably appealing.”  But he writes with an openness, enthusiasm and deceptive simplicity that pulls the reader in – you can almost see the glint in his eye as you read.  Take this passage for example from the book’s introduction:

This book is about small things.  They’re different – sometimes really, and enthrallingly, different.  We humans have always been fascinated by “small”: the gears and springs of a fine watch, embroidery, a jumping spider – each is a distinct kind of marvel.  We think of ourselves as master artisans, and we have a connoisseur’s appreciation of delicate work.

Rather than lecturing, Whitesides seeks to help you see the world through his eyes.

But the prose – beautiful as they are – are only part of the equation here.  The real genius of the book is the merging of Whitesides’ writing with Frankel’s images.  On their own, many of the images appear mundane (although the skill behind them is far from trivial).  Placed alongside Whitesides’ writing, something special happens.  The images draw out the full flavor of the prose, seasoning them to perfection.  Take this description of combustion:

The smallest flames share features in common with the largest: a burning candle tells the story as well as a coal-fired electrical power plant; only details are different in a coal fire and a diesel engine.  Here, the heat from the flame melts the hydrocarbon candle wax; the liquid wax climbs up the wick; heat radiated from the flame vaporizes the wax; the vapor mixes with air; a complex series of chemical reactions in the hot region – the flame – convert wax and oxygen to carbon dioxide and water.  At an intermediate point in the flame zone, small particles of unburned carbon – at a temperature of approximately 1000 C – glow yellow.  When combustion is incomplete, unburned carbon particles cool to smoke or soot.

The story is elegantly told.  But it is Frankel’s exquisite photograph of a candle flame beside it that connects the description to reality, and helps you appreciate the intricate science involved in an apparently simple process.

Another wonderful example comes in Whitesides’ discussion of wave-particle duality, which is dominated by his thoughts on math and poetry:

We’re burdened by a curious conditioning that blinds us to one of the greatest—perhaps the greatest—of art forms. We live for poetry; we live in terror of equations.

We see a poem, and we try it on for size: we read a line or two; we roll it around in our mind; we see how it fits and tastes and sounds. We may not like it, and let it drop, but we enjoy the encounter and look forward to the next. We seen an equation, and it is as if we’d glimpsed a tarantula in the baby’s crib. We panic.

Equations are the poetry that we use to describe the behavior of electrons and atoms, just as we use poems to describe ourselves…

Poetry describes humanity with a human voice; equations describe a reality beyond the reach of words. Playing a fugue, and tasting fresh summer tomatoes, and writing poetry, and falling in love all ultimately dissolve into molecules and electrons, but we cannot yet (and perhaps, ever) trace the path from one end (from molecules) to the other (us). Not with poetry, not with equations. But each guides us part way.

Of course, not all equations are things of beauty: some are porcupines, some are plumber’s helpers, and some are tarantulas.

And the accompanying image?  A photograph of Louis de Broglie’s wave equation – hand written.

But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the images are merely an illumination for the text.  Some of them capture perfectly the world of the nanoscale.  Others are cleverly crafted metaphors – a glass apple with a cubic shadow for instance; a metaphor for quantum objects that have attributes that seem irreconcilably at odds.

The heart of the book is sixty short essays, accompanied by images.  These are divided into seven sections, loosely covering “smallness;” strange behavior at the nanoscale; living things; why science at the nanoscale matters; dangers and challenges; and whether this is all the next big thing, or merely a storm in a teacup.  The essays are loosely linked, but each stands on its own.  Taken together, they seem at first to follow a random walk through Whitesides’ imagination – a comfortable mix of personal reflection and science on subjects that pique his curiosity.  But rather cleverly, they coalesce to provide a coherent sense of nanoscience.  And in doing so, provide what is perhaps the most honest and clear sense of nanotechnology that I have read.

The challenge here is that nanotechnology is not black and white – it’s not easy to say “this is nanotechnology; that is not.”  Other writers have tried to draw clear lines around the technology.  But in doing so, they have come perilously close to diminishing the wonder of seeing how the world works at the nanoscale, or the innovation that comes from using this knowledge.  Frankel and Whitesides on the other hand don’t draw boundaries – they are content with talking about stuff that is small, and different, and exciting, and awe inspiring.  They are happy working in gray areas that defy clear definition.  And they set out to enlighten, not instruct.

The result is a book that will delight anyone with an interest in the material world and an appreciation of poetic prose and eye-catching images.

A series of image and text from the book can be seen here.


As people seem to expect this these days, I should be clear that this is an independent review, using a copy of No Small Matter purchased from my own hard-earned cash!

Andrew Maynard is Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.


Nano rocks!

I’d like to share a beautiful video of a biological nano-machine, if I may:
(the video is halfway down)

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