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.

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