Skip to Content
  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationNOVEMBER 2006Volume 16 | Number 3 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
Fields of Fuel - By Bethany Halford
Higher Ambitions - By Alvin P. Sanoff
The Burden of Plagiarism - By Thomas K. Grose

REFRACTIONS: Identifying Ourselves - By Henry Petroski
LAST WORD: Gender Bias in Academe - By Alice Merner Agogino

Piecing It All Together: The Learning Factory provides engineering students with a more hands-on learning experience. By Lynne Shallcross
Book Review: The Dance of Molecules: How Nanotechnology Is Changing Our Lives - Reviewed By Robin Tatu
YEAR OF DIALOGUE: A Conversation With a Center- By Karl A. Smith
On Campus: Winning Combination - By Lynne Shallcross

TEACHING TOOLBOX - BOOK REVIEW: The Dance of Molecules: How Nanotechnology Is Changing Our Lives - Reviewed By Robin TatuTEACHING TOOLBOX - BOOK REVIEW: The Dance of Molecules: How Nanotechnology Is Changing Our Lives - Reviewed By Robin Tatu  


The Dance of Molecules: How Nanotechnology Is Changing Our Lives
by Ted Sargent
Thunder’s Mouth Press 2006,
304 pps.

What are the possibilities and limitations of nanotechnology? Already the U.S. military is investigating “smart suits” for its soldiers, uniforms that can absorb bullets, compress wounds, provide camouflage and protect the wearer from biological poisons. Medical researchers are developing chips to detect and destroy cancer at the cellular level, and electrical engineers are exploring a supercharged Internet based entirely upon light. In the near future, we may be able to grow human organs to replace failing livers, hearts and kidneys.

All of these innovations are explored in Ted Sargent’s “The Dance of Molecules,” an exuberant paean to nanotechnology. Sargent points out that nanotechnology is not new—nature has for eternity been organizing life from the atomic and molecular level on up, creating “limitless variety, beauty, form and purpose” based on a set of simple but powerful rules. Now scientists and engineers are seeking to work within this set of rules to coax matter into new forms. And this is the dance of which Sargent writes, “a choreographed [ballet] among atoms and molecules to achieve a desired effect.”

Throughout his book, Sargent extols the advances of this hot new science, detailing present and future applications, as well as the ethical and environmental challenges that lie ahead. After an overview of developments from the 1980s onward, the book is divided into three sections, focusing on the fields of health, the environment and information systems. The sections are further divided into chapters that examine various aspects of these topics. In the health section, for example, we learn of the nanotechnological progress in diagnosing, healing and growing new body parts.

Sargent is particularly impassioned when discussing the environment, stressing the need for America to break its dependency on fossil fuels and shift to solar power. “If we could cover one-tenth of 1 percent of the Earth’s surface with solar cells,” he proclaims, “we could satisfy our energy needs completely using this clean source of energy alone.”

The efforts of other researchers are given generous exposure throughout this text—among many others, Rice University’s Vicki Colvin’s investigations into the toxicity of nanomaterials, University of Toronto’s Sajeev John’s exploration of photonic crystals and Northwestern University’s Sam Stupp’s successes with cell scaffold building. Sargent is also attentive to the moral complexities of technological advances. Once we have the capacity to engineer bone, muscle and cartilage, will athletes, models and others be tempted to “upgrade” their bodies? Ethically, when will we feel we’ve gone too far, he asks. Similarly, in writing about the environment, Sargent cautions nanotechnologists to remain alert to the potential harm of their materials, developing ways to systematically monitor toxicities.

Hailed as one of the world’s top young innovators by MIT’s Technology Review in 2003, Sargent is well qualified to write about the nano-world. A professor at University of Toronto’s department of electrical and computer engineering, Sargent is currently a visiting researcher at MIT’s Microphotonics Center. In 2005, he was listed in the Scientific American 50 for his breakthrough with paintable solar cells that absorb infrared light, a technology that may dramatically improve the productivity of solar cells.

One of the pleasures of “Dance of Molecules” is its eloquent, lively and sometimes whimsical prose, which enables the reader to grasp concepts with ease. Writing of stem cells, for example, Sargent compares them to college freshmen who have not yet declared a major, not yet “specializing” in kidney function, bone formation or sight.

Sargent believes that all of us bear responsibility both in ensuring and in guarding the future of nanotechnology. It is incumbent upon scientific and engineering innovators to convey the interest and potential of their work, he says. And it is essential for nations to pay attention and take action. Finally, he urges everyone to “thrust themselves into debates over science and engineering—and our growing mastery over our natural world and physical fate—with the passion we owe to our future.” A readable and engaging book, “Dance of Molecules” writes very large the future of the very small.

Robin Tatu is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.




Learn about diversity at ASEE
ASEE would like to acknowledge the generous support of our premier corporate partners.


American Society for Engineering Education