Make this nanotech/war book required reading in Congress

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Nov. 7, 2003 – If you are looking for a book to send to your legislators for the holidays, you might want to consider the Ratners’ latest release, “Nanotechnology and Homeland Security.” Make that a stocking stuffer, for this is a compact sequel to the father-son team’s “Nanotechnology: A Gentle Introduction to the Next Big Idea.”


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This is probably not a book for the small tech cognoscente, but it may be perfect reading for people unfamiliar with nanotech’s potential, particularly in defense and homeland security. Mark Ratner, a longtime visionary of nanotech’s ability to pull the rug out from under traditional technologies, and his business-savvy son Dan discuss some existing and developing nanotechnologies that help protect a nation offensively and defensively.


They encourage readers to refer to their first collaboration to better understand the intricacies of nanoscale science and technology. The dweeb in me is disappointed at that, in part because they are among the more lucid and engaging writers tackling these brainteaser topics.


Instead they focus on applications where nanotech can make a nation more lethal or better protected: sensors, smart materials, methods for thwarting or disabling biological or chemical releases. They also touch on the environment, energy and the social and ethical implications of technologies that could evolve from protective to intrusive. And that’s something that should interest any elected official or citizen.


Defense offers an attractive backdrop for extolling nano’s virtues. As the Ratners point out, the estimated $4 billion spent worldwide in 2002 for all nanotech applications was half the amount that the U.S. federal government earmarked for ballistic missile defense alone.


Besides being cost-effective, they argue, nanotechnology offers solutions where none existed before. Many of the dangers in today’s headlines — anthrax, sarin and other biological and chemical threats — have dogged mankind for years and even decades, with no instantaneous, portable and reliable detection method available for soldiers or civil defense teams. But the Ratners say that’s changing with approaches such as sensors using anthrax DNA strands attached to nanodots.


“If anthrax is present, the DNA strands connected to the nanodots will bind to it, drawing the nanodots together,” they write. “As they draw closer together, the nanodots undergo a change that only happens at the nanoscale — they change color without changing structure or composition. … While the science behind it may be complicated, this is a test that anyone can use.”


The book is strong on academic research as well as efforts under way at a smattering of startups. For good reason: Mark Ratner, a chemistry professor at Northwestern University, is well versed in the goings-on in universities worldwide and Dan Ratner is an entrepreneur. The gold nanodot application, for instance, was born in a lab at Northwestern and now is being developed by Chicago-based Nanosphere Inc.


But the defense and national labs — the birthplace of many military and security innovations — get short shrift. Some of their technologies will remain forever classified in the vaults of top security labs, and will never appear in any publication. But most national labs, which are controlled through the Department of Energy, and parts of the Navy, Army and Air Force research labs are involved in unclassified work that is equal, if not superior, to the efforts under way at some universities and startups.


Nor does the book acknowledge the contributions of the industrial powerhouses in defense. Corporations such as Raytheon Co. play a role in advancing nanotechnology solutions through their own labs and partners. Raytheon created a branch devoted to nanoelectronics that dates back more than a decade. It also recently partnered with the Institute of Soldier Nanotechnologies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Institute for Cell Mimetic Space Exploration at University of California, Los Angeles, to develop nanotech products.


“Nanotechnology and Homeland Security” will be available in many retail bookstores and online this month — well in time for holiday gift giving.


 (Nonfiction, 145 pages, published in 2004 by Prentice Hall, $24.95 hardcover).


A version of this review appears in the November/December issue of Small Times Magazine.


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