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Book Review: No Small Matter by Felice C. Frankel and George M. Whitesides

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Where were George Whitesides and Felice Frankel when I was in college? Had I possessed a textbook created with the beauty, symmetry, lyricism, wit, and brevity of No Small Matter physics and chemistry might have been enjoyed rather than endured. A gorgeous coffee-table style representation of the complexities and relevance of nanotechnology, No Small Matter introduces and explains the world of the very small to those of us blind to all but the moderately large.

In his introduction, Whitesides reveals that “we understand the world intuitively over only a tiny range of sizes — sizes in the middle, between ‘very large’ and ‘very small.’” As we are limited in our perception of the ranges of light and sound, we are limited in our perception of size. “We have never personally dropped a galaxy, or knowingly sat on an individual atom.” In No Small Matter Whitesides and Frankel focus on the exploration of the world of the very, very small — the nanoscale. Nano=one billionth. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. To give perspective to anyone who has ever used a standard microscope, Whitesides reminds us that a micron, “or micrometer is much larger — a millionth of a meter, or a little less than the diameter of a red blood cell. So, we have now fallen down the rabbit hole into the world of things that are far smaller than the invisible.

Whitesides outlines the eight reasons for us to care about this realm of the incomprehensible: “Information Technology,” "Life and the Cell,” “Physical Measurement at the Atomic and Molecular Scale,” “The Unique Properties of Small Pieces of Matter,” “Materials,” “Quantum Phenomena,” “Medicine,” and “Energy, Water, and the Environment.” Taken as a collection of headings, this list seems dry and somewhat daunting; however, Whitesides expands upon each category with a passion that details why we should care — as though everything depends upon it — about this new world called nanotechnology.

"When things are large, they are what they are. When they are small, it’s a different game: they are what our measurements make them. At the marches — the regions too complicated for mathematics and too unfamiliar for intuition — strange creatures (with stranger behaviors) emerge … and our “experience” turns out to be a Classic Comic version of reality (whatever reality might be)."

I was hooked after this first page. With eight years of higher education and two degrees in the sciences behind me, I was relieved to, at last, see a scientist admitting that reality may, in fact, lie somewhere beyond our comprehension, and beyond the mathematics that were shoved down my reluctant throat. The sense of mystery and possibility that lies beneath the desert of data points and statistics served as a reminder of what was exciting about science when I was young.

No Small Matter is a picture book for grownups, a modern-day Alice in Wonderland where reality is not as it seems, and things can be more than one thing at a time. From the first chapter “Santa Maria,” Whitesides and Frankel lead us on an adventure into a surreal landscape where “the comfortable reality we know — the world where a book on the table is solidly on the table, and doors keep children safe inside — emerges from a most uncomfortable, deeper reality where things can be many places at once, and doors provide almost no barrier.”

Each single-page chapter (ideal for the easily distracted), faces a full-page illustration of that chapter’s concept. Felice Frankel’s elegant, luminous photography lends the extra “thousand words” to each topic. The illustrations capture what words cannot, the sense of perfect symmetry in this world that lies beyond our sight and almost beyond our grasp. The “Quantum Apple,” the glass apple that throws a square shadow is a metaphor for a world in which “a quantum apple could perhaps also simultaneously be a quantum cube.” In the world of small things, “what you glimpse depends on how and when you look. Even the act of looking changes the thing that is looked at.”

I suspect George Whitesides of reading my mind.

"We live for poetry; we live in terror of equations.
We see a poem, and we try it on for size: we read a line or two; we roll it around in our mind; we see how it fits and tastes and sounds. We may not like it, and let it drop, but we enjoy the encounter and look forward to the next. We see an equation, and it is as if we’d glimpsed a tarantula in the baby’s crib. We panic."

I’d always thought that there were either poetry people or equation people. To my husband, poems are tarantulas, equations works of art. I speak the language of Cummings, Keats, Snyder, and Thomas, but have always required a translator for equations. Yet, for the first time, I find myself invited to read an equation as a poem.??”?=h/mv” – oh dear, I can feel my mind shutting down. Then, Whitesides intervenes, “Read the equation as if it were poetry — a condensed description of a reality we can only see from the corner of our eye. The “equals” sign is the equivalent of “is,” and makes the equation a sentence: ‘A moving object is a wave.’ ” Equations as poems, hmm…

The dedicated physicist, chemist, or engineer might find No Small Matter overly simplistic, yet for those of us who are drawn to the fascinations of the scientific world, but more naturally interpret poems than equations, this book is a gorgeous gem.

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About Christy Corp-Minamiji

  • Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Superb review of a fascinating book, Christy. Your expressive writing more than opened and clarified on its own the “sense of mystery and possibility that lies beneath the desert of data points and statistics.” Thanks.

  • Christy Corp-Minamiji

    Thanks, Gordon!