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Nanotechnology Starts with a Dare: Feynman’s Big 'Little Challenges'

by Editor1 last modified October 01, 2007 - 14:58

Excerpted from:

Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems

 Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems
<p>Although nanotechnology is a hot topic, the search for a true introductory textbook usually comes up cold. Students in a first course on nanotechnology come from a wide variety of backgrounds, so the text must not assume understanding of too much background material, nor be too focused on any particular area. And still, those students are capable of understanding the hard details of the science, so the text must not gloss over the rigorous scientific explanations. <b>Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems</b> fits perfectly between popular science books and high-level treatises, neither of which suit the needs of students approaching this field for the first time. <p>Working from the ground up, this text provides a detailed yet accessible introduction to the world's fastest growing field. Through real-world examples, hundreds of homework problems, original illustrations, and a clear approach, the authors accomplish the delicate task of keeping the book engaging while not avoiding real explanations of complex concepts. They take a systems-based approach, demonstrating how an understanding of the various areas underlying nanotechnology come together to create systems with unique functions and characteristics. In every case, comparing nanoscale systems to macroscale systems reveals the complex and fundamental differences between phenomena at different scales and uncovers the specific challenges posed by nanotechnology. <p>With comprehensive coverage conveyed in an engaging and entertaining style, <b>Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems</b> provides a gateway into the exciting and rapidly evolving area of nanotechnology.</p>
Extract From Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems
     Ben Rogers Nevada Nanotech Systems, Inc.
     Sumita Pennathur University of California at Santa Barbara

(Chapter 1: Big Pictures and Principals of the Small World)

Perhaps it was Richard Feynman’s enigmatic reputation. Not quite the scientific celebrity he would soon become—he had not won his Nobel Prize for quantum electrodynamics yet—the physicist’s ideas and motives were perhaps still enshrouded in enough mystery to keep his colleagues on their toes. When the American Physical Society asked him to serve as the featured speaker during its annual banquet, he accepted. The Society’s 1959 meeting was in Pasadena, California—Feynman’s backyard. It was hosted by Caltech on a warm December 29th, a few days before the new year, a fitting time of year for predicting the future.

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The banquet was at downtown Pasadena’s Huntington-Sheraton. For $4.50 a plate, roughly 300 members of the scientific community ate and drank together. Among the topics of discussion was the title of their guest speaker’s talk: “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” Some were embarrassed to admit they did not know what the title meant. Had Feynman selected a topic over their heads? Others guessed that Feynman was going to tell them about how there were plenty of lousy jobs left for the taking in the physics industry.

When Society President George Uhlenbek welcomed Dr. Feynman to the stage amid the clinking of busy silverware and dinnerware, attendees readied themselves for some kind of elaborate put-on, the kind only Dr. Feynman could conjure.

Feynman's 'Utterly Serious" Small Proposition
However, Feynman was utterly serious. And he was talking about a field for which a name had yet to be coined. He was talking about nanotechnology. Feynman had spent a lot of his own time mulling over the possibilities of small things. Small as in atoms. His tone suggested something akin to disappointment and at the same time hope. His questions: Why has someone not already done this? Why have we yet to think big about the very small? I will tell you what needs to be done, and the best part is:
it is doable!

“Now the name of the talk is ‘There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom’—not just “’There’s Room at the Bottom,’” Feynman said. “I will not discuss how we are going to do it, but only that it is possible in principle—in other words, what is possible according to the laws
of physics. I am not inventing anti-gravity, which is possible someday only if the laws are not what we think. I am telling you what could be done if the laws are what we think; we are not doing it simply because we haven’t gotten around to it.” In his speech, he would pose challenge after challenge—such as writing the entire twenty-four volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on a pinhead, making an electron microscope that could see individual atoms, or building a microscopic computer—and then he would outline the parameters of that challenge.

In his talk, Feynman made many references to examples in nature such as DNA and the human brain where miniaturization was already wildly successful. Much of what he said has since come to fruition and is commonplace, although in a year when computers took up entire rooms it all sounded quite like fantasy. He explained many of the physical issues and challenges inherent in moving to the small scale, including quantum behavior, van der Waals forces, heat transport, and, of course, fabrication. Still he was intrepid: “I am not afraid to consider the final question as to whether, ultimately—in the great future—we can arrange atoms the way we want; the very atoms, all the way down!”

In parting, Feynman offered a pair of $1000 prizes. One was for the first person to create an operating electrical motor no larger than 1/64 in3. To Feynman’s dismay, William McLellan tediously did just that, using tweezers and a microscope, within 4 months of the speech. The motor had 13 parts, weighed 250 micrograms, and rotated at 2000 rpm. Feynman had been home from his honeymoon less than a week when he had to explain to his wife the promise he had made. They were not exactly financially prepared to divvy out prize money, but he did. (The motor, on display at Caltech, no longer spins.)

The second prize was won by Tom Newman, a Stanford grad student who met Feynman’s challenge to “take the information on the page of a book and put it on an area 1/25,000 smaller in linear scale in such a manner that it can be read by an electron microscope,” (roughly the scale at which the entire Encyclopedia Britannica could squeeze onto a pinhead). Newman and colleague Ken Polasko were at the forefront of electron-beam lithography, approaching the level of quantum effects. They sent a letter to Feynman asking if the prize was still unclaimed, and he phoned them personally in their lab to encourage them to pursue it. They did, using a specialized electron beam writing program to transcribe the full first page of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Feynman’s visions are being realized at a pace quicker than perhaps even he had expected. The unfathomable gets more mundane every day. As with the gradual refinement of atomic theory, the breakthroughs that continue to enable development in nanotechnology are the result of thousands of years of scientific inquiry.

Excerpted from:

 Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems

Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems

<p>Although nanotechnology is a hot topic, the search for a true introductory textbook usually comes up cold. Students in a first course on nanotechnology come from a wide variety of backgrounds, so the text must not assume understanding of too much background material, nor be too focused on any particular area. And still, those students are capable of understanding the hard details of the science, so the text must not gloss over the rigorous scientific explanations. <b>Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems</b> fits perfectly between popular science books and high-level treatises, neither of which suit the needs of students approaching this field for the first time. <p>Working from the ground up, this text provides a detailed yet accessible introduction to the world's fastest growing field. Through real-world examples, hundreds of homework problems, original illustrations, and a clear approach, the authors accomplish the delicate task of keeping the book engaging while not avoiding real explanations of complex concepts. They take a systems-based approach, demonstrating how an understanding of the various areas underlying nanotechnology come together to create systems with unique functions and characteristics. In every case, comparing nanoscale systems to macroscale systems reveals the complex and fundamental differences between phenomena at different scales and uncovers the specific challenges posed by nanotechnology. <p>With comprehensive coverage conveyed in an engaging and entertaining style, <b>Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems</b> provides a gateway into the exciting and rapidly evolving area of nanotechnology.</p>