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May 2006

There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom: Richard Feynman's Big Dream for Small Things

by Kim Breitfelder

The field of nanotechnology is in its infancy, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have a heritage. And although nanotechnology's destination is widely debated and largely uncertain, looking back at its historical roots although relatively shallow helps us get a better grasp on what nanotechnology is, why it's important now, and how it will change the world in the future.

The story of nanotechnology (technology smaller than a nanometer, or one billionth of a meter) begins in the 1950s and 1960s, when most engineers were thinking big, not small. In an era of big cars, big bombs, big buildings, and big plans for sending people into outer space, the electronics industry began its ongoing love affair with making things small. The invention of the transistor in 1947 and the first integrated circuits in the late 1950s launched an era of electronics miniaturization.

It was within that context that, on 29 December 1959, physicist Richard Feynman delivered a public lecture, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." While few took notice at the time, Feynman's words are believed to have inspired the new field of nanotechnology. Delivered at the meeting of a local California chapter of the American Physical Society, the talk opened with Feynman announcing that he had identified what might someday be considered an entirely new field but not a field of technology. Although he called it a field of physics the study of matter he went on to describe what might more accurately be called a field of science-based engineering.

In his lecture, Feynman described something very curious: potentially writing an enormous amount of text, perhaps the entire contents of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in a space about the size of the head of a pin. He described how this could be done using techniques available to engineers in 1959. He further surmised that all the information in every book in a library could theoretically be converted to digital information and "stored" as "bits" consisting of particles of just a few atoms each, built in two different shapes to represent 0s and 1s. This would pack much more information into an even smaller space, and Feynman believed that the entire contents of the world's great libraries could fit in something the size of a dust mite. If information could be condensed, Feynman then argued, so too could the information machine, the computer. Perhaps not aware that the integrated circuit had been invented earlier that year, Feynman suggested that tiny computers could be made by fabricating all the necessary wires and components using chemical techniques, to form a small, solid "block" containing all the necessary electronics.

But Feynman saw even more interesting possibilities, not only in microelectronics but also in micromachines. What if, he speculated, it were possible to construct tiny machines specially designed to perform some simple surgical operation inside the body? Medicine would be revolutionized. In addition to micromachines, Feynman also believed that constructing useful things could be done at the atomic level, by manipulating individual atoms to arrange them however the engineer or scientist wanted. Then, he reasoned, compounds and chemicals for drugs or other purposes could be easily manufactured, limited only by the imagination of the chemist. Feynman closed with a challenge to engineers to carry out some of the tasks he had mentioned, specifically reducing printed information to a size that could only be read with an electron microscope, and making a functional electric motor no larger than 1/64th of an inch square.

A few months later, Engineering and Science magazine published an account of the Feynman's lecture. Despite the article and the fact that some of his predictions for tiny computers were being realized in the form of digital integrated circuits, Feynman's talk remained largely forgotten for the next two decades. In the 1980s, physicist K. Eric Drexler rediscovered the Feynman article, and he expanded on Feynman's limited vision of tiny drills and lathes, microscopic toy automobiles, pin-head encyclopedias, miniaturized computer circuits, and customized chemicals. Drexler called his broader approach "nanotechnology," but credited Feynman with the inspiration.

Feynman's hypotheses and predictions have often been misconstrued as a sort of vision of the future, but his proposal was brief, vague and founded on the technologies of the late 1950s. Nonetheless, he deserves credit for recognizing one of the most important technological trends of the late 20th century, one that promises to make the 21st century very interesting.

This article is adapted from the IEEE Virtual Museum exhibit, Small is Big: The Coming Nanotechnology Revolution. To see the full exhibit, visit www.ieee.org/museum.

 

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Kim Breitfelder is Program Manager for the IEEE Virtual Museum at the IEEE History Center. Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org. Visit the IEEE History Center's Web page at: www.ieee.org/organizations/history_center/


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