The Science of Sustainability

50 Years Later, Still Plenty of Room at the Bottom

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Lawrence Berkeley Lab's TEAM 0.5 is capable of resolving individual carbon atoms in the honeycomb crystal structure of graphene. See QUEST's video The World's Most Powerful Microscope for more information. Image source: Nano LettersThe twentieth century’s most important physicist after Albert Einstein is almost certainly Richard Feynman. Known as much for his eccentricities as for his brilliance, he spent his adolescent spare time picking locks, translated Mayan hieroglyphics as an adult, and was one of the few people brash enough to attempt viewing the U.S.’s first atomic bomb test without protective sunglasses. Feynman’s chief scientific contribution was the development of QED, a fundamental and astonishingly accurate description of electricity and magnetism. However, he was also a champion of the practical, and in 1959 gave a gave a prophetic speech at Caltech to his colleagues entitled, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” The speech described a rich world of possibilities that could arise if we only applied ourselves toward controlling matter on smaller and smaller scales.

Fifty years later, a new field of nanotechnology has exploded. At the cutting edge, researchers are successfully manufacturing everything from corporate logos to radios that are all small enough to be stacked end-to-end perhaps a million items long across the proverbial head of a pin. The advent of personal computers and smart phones has brought the power of such miniaturization into sharp focus for the general public. In a very real sense, we have all become bottom feeders. Below is a brief progress report on the state of the field.

Microscopes: The old adage “seeing is believing” was not lost on Feynman back in the late fifties. He noted that many of the most fundamental questions in biology could be readily solved if we only had the ability to see the molecules directly. Today, new inventions such as the scanning tunneling microscope (STM), the atomic force microscope (AFM), and the transmission electron microscope (TEM) have all achieved resolution at the scale where individual atoms can actually be seen and manipulated.

Miniature Motors: Perhaps the speech’s most imaginative scenario, due to Feynman’s friend (and graduate student) Albert Hibbs, was the concept of being able to “swallow the surgeon.” Feynman imagined that we might some day be able to construct robots capable of repairing or investigating the inner reaches of an ailing patient’s body. Mixing engineering and biology like this can run quickly into thorny ethical questions. Nevertheless, interesting progress has been made. Researchers in Alex Zettl’s group at UC Berkeley have recently constructed a nano motor, for example.

Information Storage: Using order-of-magnitude arguments, Feynman argued that the Encyclopedia Britannica could be squeezed into a pin’s area if the text were reduced by a factor of 25,000. He offered a $1,000 prize to the first person capable of printing one page of any book at this scale. Tom Newman, a graduate student at Stanford, first accomplished this in 1986 with an impressive reprinting of the first page of Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities. Today, you can buy the book in its entirety for only 1.9 megabytes. For a high-end smart phone with 30 gigabytes of memory, you could perhaps hold 15,000 books within the palm of your hand. Not bad.

Then again, at the extreme limit, Feynman also reasoned that you ought to be able to squeeze the text of every book that has ever been written (now more than 32 million titles according the Library of Congress) within the confines of a single speck of dust. We still have a long way to go.

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Category: Engineering, Partners, Physics

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Christopher Smallwood

About the Author ()

Christopher Smallwood is a Graduate Student in Physics at UC Berkeley. He is interested in the nexus between the basic research community and society at large. Originally from the Bavarian-themed tourist town of Leavenworth, WA (yes, real people actually do live there!), he graduated with an A.B. in Physics from Harvard College in 2005, taught fifth grade at Leo Elementary School in South Texas, and has been pursuing his Ph.D. in the Bay Area since the fall of 2007. Currently, he studies experimental condensed matter in the Lanzara Research Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. His past research interests have included Bose-Einstein condensation, rubidium-based atomic clocks, hydrogen masers, lenses and mirrors, mayflies, mousetrap cars, toothpick bridges, fawn lilies, the slinky, Legos, vinegar and baking soda volcanoes, wolves, choo-choo trains, and the word "moon."