Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Happy Anniversary Prof. Feynman

It was 50 years ago today, in a speech to the American Physical Society at Caltech entitled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” that Prof. Richard Feynman entered the domain of successful prophets, a small circle typically reserved for biblical personalities.  In this singular oration, Feynman discussed topics that were somewhat fantastic in the middle of the 20th century, but would be completely familiar to nanotechnology students of today.  Each of these “predictions” was illustrated using Feynman’s signature back-of-the-envelope estimations.
  • The concepts of electron beam lithography and nanoimprinting (without using those terms) were presented as possible methods for writing the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin, and later the entire known literary universe in a 35-page pamphlet.
  • The intersection of biology and nanoscale materials, particularly related to information storage within DNA (whose structure was only determined 6 years earlier), and the use of imaging tools for cellular analysis, were noted as areas ripe for research. 
  • Both determination of chemical structure using new imaging tools (see my post from Sept. 11, 2009 for a recent demonstration of this prediction) and ultimately atom-by-atom chemical synthesis were both described.
  • Prof. Feynman described a variety of nanomachines (automobiles, computers, and biomedical devices) that surely inspired Eric Drexler in his thinking.  In addition, he realized that nanoscale material properties (electrical, magnetic, and mechanical) would deviate from the bulk, and need to be considered by nano-engineers.  While some of the practicalities remained elusive to Feynman, he noted that “there is nothing that I can see in the physical laws that says the…elements cannot be made enormously smaller than they are now. In fact, there may be certain advantages.”
  • While likely unaware of the fact that he was describing a new branch of interdisciplinary science, Prof. Feynman understood the need for educational initiatives to motivate students to potential careers in this field, and specifically called for high school competitions.  In addition, he offered two prizes for experimental demonstrations of the concepts he illustrated: one for a miniature motor, which was claimed 4 months later, and a second for reproducing a page of text at 1/25,000 scale.  The latter was won by a Stanford graduate student in 1985 who used electron beam lithography to print the first page of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities on a page measuring only 6.25 microns per side.
  • Finally, while remaining a theoretical physicist, Prof. Feynman was thinking like an early entrepreneur well before the Bayh-Dole act opened the doors for universities to retain ownership of their intellectual property.  He recognized that “this field is not quite the same as the others in that it will not tell us much of fundamental physics… [but] it would have an enormous number of technical applications.”
It can be argued that “nano-technology” was born and named by Taniguchi in 1974, and reached adulthood (but not maturity) in 1993 with IBM’s quantum corral. I think nobody will disagree that today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of its conception in the fertile mind of Prof. Richard Feynman. 

Note:  For an example of the speech’s text printed using nanoscale letters with dip-pen nanolithography, click here.

Friday, December 11, 2009

I'm Sensing a Trend

This time of year and the end of the decade often inspire list creation.  Examples of this activity include critics' top movie and music picks, as well as Time magazine's lists of everything, including the top ten scandals and the top ten blogs (I guess I am out).

So it was with some skepticism that I read about The Times (of London, not New York) Higher Education Supplement posting its list of the "Top Ten Chemists" of the last decade, as determined by citations per paper from the Thomson Reuters Essential Science Indicators. The "top chemist" (and we can debate the label based on citations, but that is another discussion) is Stephen Buchwald (MIT) with 171 papers and nearly 87 citations per paper.  Two of the other top ten are also organic chemists, including Nobel Laureate (2005) Robert Grubbs (Cal Tech).  This is excellent, and I congratulate these men (for all the top ten are men - again, this is another discussion).  But the truly remarkable aspect of this list (or is it?) is that the remaining 7 chemists all work in the nanoscience and nanotechnology arena.  With more than 1100 publications in the decade combined, these chemists include such well-known names as Chad Mirkin (Northwestern), George Whitesides (Harvard), and Georgia Tech's own Mostafa El-Sayed who comes in at #4 on the list with 112 papers and more than 75 citations per paper.

The fact that nanoscience is playing such a significant role in chemistry research, and the corollary that nanoscience research is dominated by the fields of chemistry, physics and their cousin materials science, is not news to Alan Porter and Jan Youtie who this past fall published an analysis of nanotechnology publication and citation data.  While nanoscience is certainly interdisciplinary (as is much of non-nano science these days), and there is neighborly sharing and borrowing of information and techniques, still there is considerable "local" character as well.

Are these observations characteristic of the ever changing nature of the research environment, or rather an artifact due to labeling and re-labeling of research areas using in vogue terminology to ensure optimum exposure and funding.  Will this be a long-lasting condition, or will the next research and technology revolution quickly replace it?  Only time will tell.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

What Defines a Revolution?

Back in May, I wrote a blog post on the commercial uses of nanotechnology.  I was supportive of an editorial in Nature Nanotechnology (January 2009), titled "The Other Nanotech" which argued that current uses of nanoscience and nanoengineering, while for the most part mundane and low tech (sunscreen and anti-bacterial socks), are providing a framework for more advanced applications later on.

In a recent (November 2009) issue of ACS Nano, Associate Editor Jillian Buriak presents an editorial (it seems like nanotechnology inspires more editorializing than any science I can remember) called "The Quiet Revolution".  In this piece, she laments the fact that most commercial uses of nanoscience have been in the creation of common consumer products, vide supra, and that there is no "killer app" or revolutionary technology yet available.  On the other hand, she postulates that the ultimate revolutionary aspect of nanotechnology is that it has brought a variety of disciplines from international collaborators together to solve important problems from the ground up, and that this may be nanotechnology's long-lasting legacy.

Even though I found myself nodding in agreement with most of the editorial, I felt compelled to respond to Dr. Buriak.  Here is the text of an e-mail I wrote her:

"I read your recent editorial, “A Quiet Revolution”.  Although I agree with your conclusions, that nanoscience is fostering a new kind of inter- and multi-disciplinary environment that is eager to tackle the hard problems of energy, environment, and health, I also think you might take a look (if you haven’t already) at a recent (Jan. 2009) editorial in Nature Nanotechnology (attached).  As this editorial argues, and that I have supported in several of my blog posts, we should embrace the mundane uses of nanotechnology (the sunscreen and anti-bacterial silver nanoparticles) as the lessons learned from these initial commercial ventures will ultimately (and hopefully) be used to create the more ambitious applications (the killer apps).  I would even argue that the electronic circuitry in your iPod Nano is just one of many uses for the nano-sized transistors and other components being developed, and that we often miss the revolutionary nature of technology because the changes occur slowly on the human time scale, but rapidly when put into historical context.  Is nanoscience responsible for all of the societal changes we have witnessed in the last several decades?  Of course not, but it certainly has abetted some major transformations in computers and electronics, and all the things that these touch."

Perhaps we are not in the midst of a technology revolution akin to the industrial revolution or the advent of the computer age.  Rather, to paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we will know the nanotechnology revolution when we see it.