Gray Goo

“This is thermodynamically impossible.”

“No one was particularly scared of these things, since they’re so small.”

“And no one particularly should be, since they cannot dissipate Brownian energy, nor can they reproduce on such limited raw materials.”

“All true,” remarked the speaker, somewhat disgruntled. “But that doesn’t change the fact that one of our orbital research facilities has—and quite otherwise inexplicably, I might add—dissolved into a perfect sphere of uniform color.”

The slide changed. A red ball stood superimposed against the stars, a sinister crescent moon.

“Why!” Someone gasped. “That was the I.S.S Clarke!”

The speaker nodded. “Indeed, Clarke was painted red, for better visibility to near-IR scanners.”

“My condolences, Charlie.”

“So they don’t operate on individual atoms,” someone muttered.

“Speak up.”

“They operate and exist on the molecular—not atomic—level. Or else they’d have simply decomposed the pigments, and it would take some unpredictable appearance. It’d form a nanoscale metastructure, so I guess it’d be some kind of an iridescent panoply.”

“Correct. Notice that operating at a higher spatial level obviates the major energy constraints. The material-limitations ones did not apply, as Clarke is—was—made primary of steel nanofoam and composite volatiles.”

“So,” the speaker continued, “we have a real gray goo situation on our hands. So far, it shows no signs of stripping the extremely tenuous atmosphere in LEO, but eventually it will fall to Earth, and this crisis will become, quite possibly, an apocalypse. Any suggestions?”