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Title: Hacking Matter
Author: Wil McCarthy
Publisher: Basic Books
Copyright: 2003
ISBN: 0-465-04428-x
Pages: 222
Price: $26.00
Rating: 65%

The science fiction fan I have long been can only snicker reading the introduction to this book. Presented as if it were written in 2100, the author looks back at the century of programmable matter. At the flick of a switch, "a wall becomes a window becomes a hologram generator." Sure, right... But his explanation is compelling: wellstone, based on silicone, allows matter to change at the atomic level, as "tiny quantum wave packets take precedence over their behavior as particles". These "quantum wells" become, at two dimensions, "quantum wire", and, with the addition of a third dimension, "quantum dots". Wellstone matter is weaker than its natural counterparts, but it has enabled scientists to create "otherwise-impossible substances like impervium, the toughest superreflector known." The introduction ends with this charming statement: "Still, the fable of the three little pigs holds true: not even the Luddites among us build their houses of straw or sticks when impervium is a free download." 

Okay, you've got me. I want to read on and see if you can pull it off, if you can make a convincing story about the seemingly unnatural transformation of matter from one substance to another. Science fiction? Well, what if...? What if it were possible to create programmable matter? Wil McCarthy, who is in fact a science fiction writer, and who has penned a novel called The Wellstone, explores this idea. 

Quantum mechanics, nanoparticles, light waves and colors all present properties that McCarthy examines in his discussion, as he flits from research lab to corporation telling his tale. This is not the story of nanotechnology, like many other books have recently examined, however; this book looks at mesoscale effects and mesoscopic semiconductors. Mesoscale is that fuzzy range between nano and micro, somewhere between the size of red blood cells and water molecules, a frontier where "physics are neither classical nor quantum." 

A few chapters lay down the scientific fundamentals, but this is hard science, and it can be hard to understand. There's some complex stuff about quantum mechanics, photoelectric effects and semiconductors, and it's rough going. But when you get to page 116, you realize what this book is really about: the author explains how he and a partner have patented the idea of wellstone, and this book then makes sense as a long corporate brochure to sell his technology.  

The book turns speculative in chapter 7, The Programmable City, where we discover that, oops, "The properties of wellstone will not be infinitely programmable..." So perhaps that wall really can't become a window.  McCarthy talks about heat and lighting, and how wellstone can be used to transfer these forms of energy in buildings, but a lot of his discussions seem to be about how this material can collect energy, such as that from the sun, and transfer it into different forms. When he talks about streets becoming huge solar energy collectors, but this certainly doesn't come close to flicking a switch and changing a chair into a computer.  

In the end, what began as a charmingly attractive idea became drowned by the author's need to fill a 200-page book to describe his patent, and his delving into complex technologies without being concrete. I'm not an engineer, but I'm nobody's fool; nevertheless, a lot of the science in here is beyond me. The book's conclusions don't seem as revolutionary as its introduction, and the fact that the author has patented his idea makes it all seem like one big promotional vehicle.

Kirk McElhearn  

Kirk McElhearn ( is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site,