Nano was published in 1995, and as such may be somewhat behind the current state-of-the-art in the field. Nevertheless, most of the predictions it makes have not yet come to pass, so I suspect that it brings us nearly to the present in the field of the very small, and serves as a very good introduction to it's subject matter for the newbie.
If the subtitle is to be believed, then the emerging science of nanotechnology is contained more or less solely in the person of K. Eric Drexler. The book focuses exclusively on Drexler's career, first as an MIT student obsessed with the dream of colonizing outer space, then later as an MIT grad student obsessed with the dream of colonizing inner space. Drexler's goal is to create the "assemblers" that are the source of all consumer goods in Neal Stephensen's Diamond Age. That is, a microwave-sized box that is capable of building any object you want from the bottom up, by pushing individual atoms into place. In theory, this would enable humanity to create any number of atomically perfect copies of literally any object we wanted.
So, the stakes are clearly huge. But can we do it? K. Eric Drexler thinks so, and Ed Regis agrees with him. There's no doubt that Drexler has demonstrated his grasp of the sciences involved. He had, by 1995, authored two popular accounts of the emerging field, Engines of Creation and Unbounding the Future, as well as the highly technical Nanosystems, adapted from his PhD thesis. He was also awarded the first doctoral degree ever in the field of molecular nanotechnology, also by MIT (through Marvin Minsky and the media lab). He has done his homework.
Nano, however, doesn't give us too much chance to evaluate Drexler's critics on their own merits. A couple times a chapter or so, Regis brings up what the critics had to say about whatever Drexler was doing at the time, and immediately shoots them down, often with a kind of disparaging, dismissive glee. After several hundred pages, I began to wish that Regis would actually present their arguments, rather than merely characterizing them for the purposes of mockery. The overall tenor of the argument is that when the stakes are this high, any criticism is small-minded nitpicking. Regis shares Drexler's dream, and remains resolutely unwilling to doubt throughout the book.
Nano is relatively light on the science itself, being a popular account for non-chemists, so I'm unable to come to any conclusions on whether Drexler's vision of molecular nanotech is actually possible. But what I found most interesting about the book was it's treatment of the "what if" scenario. What if we do accomplish this. What if, from a small stream of source atoms, we can assemble anything we need, practically for free (Drexler estimates that a new car would cost approximately $3.75 to produce and market). Undoubtedly, material abundance on this scale would change everything. Food would be more or less irrelevant, as would most other consumer goods. What would humanity do with itself if work was unnecessary? Or would work, in fact even be unnecessary?
There are no hard answers, because this is a deeply disruptive technology. As much as, or more so than, electricity, it is the kind of scientific advance that would literally change everything, and render us, pre-nano, incapable of predicting what our world would be like in the post-nano future. Many people try to say what it would be like, and they all eventually throw up their hands and finish with "I don't know." Even Stephensen, who attempts to answer this question in The Diamond Age, which basically takes Drexler's technology as it's premise, is hardly able to scratch the surface. Molecular nanotech would be the greatest power ever vested in humanity's care, by far, for good or for evil. Imagine the ecological effects of nano machines that produce more of themselves from any available atomic resource, unleashed in the Earth's biosphere. Drexler estimates that they would be capable of thoroughly trashing the planet, ending all life on Earth, and denuding the planet of all resources, in as little as ten days. Ten days.
So the dream of nano clearly has a potential downside as large as it's potential upside. Which will it be? Or will it even be at all? There are no answers yet. But this is a field worth watching, and Nano does a good job introducing it to the non-scientist.
Nano: The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology, by Ed Regis
Little, Brown & Co., 1995. 308 pp. and index
available at Amazon.com and Fatbrain.