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December 29, 1959: Feynman's Classic Caltech Lecture

FeynmanNobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman is known for many things: an enthusiasm for playing the bongos; a penchant for breaching security systems at Los Alamos while working on the Manhattan Project; his definitive Congressional testimony attributing the 1986 Challenger disaster for faulty "O"-rings; and a myriad of published works encompassing both physics research and personal reminiscences. And just before the series of classic Caltech lectures that formed the basis of The Feynman Lectures on Physics (first published in 1963), Feynman gave a seminal talk on the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale, entitled, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom."

By the time Feynman gave his lecture in December 1959, scientists had succeeded in constructing electric motors the size of a small fingernail, and created a device capable of writing the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin. Yet he dismissed such advances as "the most primitive, halting step" on the road to miniaturization, concluding, "It is a staggeringly small world that is below." He envisioned writing the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica onto the head of a pin, maintaining that the only requirement to accomplishing this was reducing in size the text by 25,000 times.

Of course, he acknowledged that writing and reading such tiny text would require improvements in manufacturing techniques and instrumentation, particularly a hundred-fold improvement in then-existing electron microscopy, which needs to be capable of observing individual atoms but at the time could only resolve about 10 angstroms.

Feynman believed so strongly in the possibilities of miniaturization because biology is teeming with examples of writing information in a small scale. "The fact that enormous amounts of information can be carried in an exceedingly small space is well known to the biologists... and resolves the mystery of how, in the tiniest cell, all of the information for the organization of a complex creature such as ourselves can be stored," he said. Furthermore, human cells are active, capable of the manufacture of various substances, movement, and storage of information. Based on this, he envisioned the possibility of small but movable machines (recognizable as today's micro-electrical mechanical systems), computing at the quantum scale, arranging individual atoms, and perhaps one day even performing surgery internally with miniature movable devices.

History has borne out Feynman's now-famous observations. The fields of nanotechnology, MEMS, quantum computing, and molecular self-assembly, among others, have exploded, with ground-breaking research paving the way for the realization of Feynman's early vision. Even President Bill Clinton harkened back to Feynman's comments when he announced the new National Nanotechnology Initiative in January 2000 - an announcement made, appropriately enough, at Caltech. Feynman's prescience in anticipating the likely developments in miniaturization and nanotechnology is one of the many reasons why former Caltech president Marvin Goldberger cited him as "a towering figure in 20th century physics," and MIT physicist Philip Morrison once called him "the most original theoretical physicist of our time."

Further Reading: Nano! By Ed Regis (1995: Little Brown).

Birthdays for December:

5: Arnold Sommerfeld (1868)
5: Werner Heisenberg (1901)
14: N. G. Basov (1922)
15: Henri Becquerel (1852)
18: J.J.Thomson (1856)
19: Albert Michelson (1852)
25: Isaac Newton (1642)
27: Johannes Kepler (1571)
28: John von Neumann (1903)
28: Arthur Eddington (1882)


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