Friday, December 28, 2007

Iain M. Banks' The Algebraist

Iain Banks drinks from the same spring of maniacal invention as Neal Stephenson, and swims in the same kind of infinite fountain of words. But he relegates nano to almost nothing in this major SF novel from 2005. Nano plays the role of some crappy surveillance dust that is found out in time for Fassin our lead to save himself. Let's just say that nano is NOT a "general-purpose technology."

The Algebraist's system is extremely advanced, but the extremely small has a walk-on as a variable component in an agent of control.

There are all sorts of great things about this book, which sometime you absolutely must read! Among others, there are elements of a theory of technology:

1. the most powerful is the most embedded. The species that has the highest-tech has also integrated it so completely into its cultural systems that it is most of the time literally invisible.

2. the best takes the longest. My late friend Freddie Payne used to say Thinking Takes Time. So does technology. We think of technology as the accelerator, or at least the fast. In the Algebraist, advanced technology takes forever. More to the point, it is the realm of the Slow.

3. good use is decentralized. Successful defense technology is entirely off the social grid and is controlled by unknown members of the Slow species who consult no one. But oddly it a different, highly structured social system that is despotic - the Mercatoria, which stratifies and maps everything and is oriented towards control. Something about the Slow species - trust, history, cultural telepathy, who knows - allows this completely diffused authority to work. It is the only kind of authority that does.

Good tech in this book comes from some new mixtures of social organization that we have hardly started to imagine. We can at least ask the concept - the inspiration - of nano to help with that.

Or as Banks puts it, describing the stories told by the Slow: "in all that flux of chaos, propaganda, drivel and weirdness, there were nuggets of actuality, seams of facts, frozen rivers of long-forgotten history, whole volumes of exobiography and skeins and tissues of truth."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Shrink-Wrapped Bucky Balls?

While looking through Sandia's homepage, I came across a recent discovery by one of their researchers. Jianyu Huang claims to have been the first to collect in situ experimental observations of a fullerene being formed. By heating single atom-thick layers of carbon so they bend into nanobowls, the carbon atoms continue to pile on until a "mega-fullerene" is formed. Contnued heat "shrink-wraps" this strucutre into a more stable C60 atom. Sandia theorizes that this may pave the way for a way to mass produce fullerenes. Of curious note is the life story of Huang, being raised in a rural Chinese villiage: