"The nanocosm is a serious kind of small.” -- William Atkinson

William Atkinson lives in North Vancouver. He was awarded the 1997 Dalhousie University Prix D’Excellence in Issues Writing. He is like that smart uncle who can answer any question you dream up. Why is the sky blue? Why are the Northern Lights green? How does radio work?

As a follow-up to Prototype: How Canadian Innovation is Shaping the Future, William Atkinson’s Nanocosm (Viking $37) features interviews with thinkers across the globe who discuss innovations for the future. “My goal was to entertain," he says. "I also want to explain the ‘nuts, guts and feathers’ of nanoscience. Most science writing isn’t practical. Business, on the other hand, only looks at return on investment. I want to blend the two. I want to show how discoveries will benefit the public. Nanoscience will be like the scientific revolution of the sixteenth century. It will start small—if you’ll forgive the pun. It will be as big as the computer… more fundamental than mathematics.” Nanoscience is a relatively new arena. It’s the study of our world at a small scale and Atkinson puts into perspective just how small. “A scale of millimeters brings us to the world of the insects… Drop down a notch and you enter the world of the micrometer, a unit of length that is one thousandth of a millimeter… Below the microcosm comes creation on the scale of the nanometer, one millionth of a millimeter. If a nanometer were scaled up to the width of your little fingernail, then your fingernail would be the size of Delaware and your thumb would be the size of Florida.”

Nanoscience explains traits of common objects: why a mirror is reflective, how car tires stay flexible across a variety of temperatures, why a mollusk shell is so tough, how an eggshell gets its shape. It also explains how the human brain makes some complex calculations faster than today’s fastest machines. A supercomputer takes days to analyze a person’s face, but a human brain takes less than a second and draws accurate conclusions about age and sex. Indiana’s Dr. Simon Haykin (‘a ringer for Bilbo Baggins’) explains. “Today’s computers are serial. They chew through problems one bite at a time… [The brain’s] computing architecture is not serial; it’s parallel—massively parallel. Great quantities of neurons chew through problems from many directions at once, then assemble those separate findings to get their final result. Tomorrow’s nanocomputer would be massively parallel. To minimize heat dissipation problems, it would cover a large area.” In his interview with Dr. Haykin, Atkinson explains the concept further. “Dr. H. foresees something wearable. Call it CompuCloth—with circuits that are lightweight, rugged and mechanically flexible. How about an advanced graphics computer the size, shape and weight of a pocket handkerchief?” He jokingly suggests, “Social etiquette note to future computer users: Examine what you blow your nose in before the fact.” Nanocosm: 0-670-04342-7

[Jeremy Twigg / BCBW 2003] "Science"