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There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom

There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom is the title of a famous lecture given by physicist Richard Feynman at an American Physical Society meeting at Caltech on December 29 in 1959. [1] Feynman considered the possibility of direct manipulation of individual atoms as a more powerful form of synthetic chemistry than those used at the time.

Feynman considered a number of interesting ramifications of a general ability to manipulate matter on an atomic scale. He was particularly interested in the possibilities of denser computer circuitry, and microscopes which could see things much smaller than is possible with scanning electron microscopes. These ideas were later realized by the use of the scanning tunneling microscope, the atomic force microscope and other examples of probe microscopy and storage systems such as Millipede, created by researchers at IBM.

Feynman also suggested that it should be possible, in principle, to do chemical synthesis by mechanical manipulation, and he presented the "weird possibility" of building a tiny, swallowable surgical robot by developing a set of one-quarter-scale manipulator hands slaved to the operator's hands to build one-quarter scale machine tools analogous to those found in any machine shop. This set of small tools would then be used by the small hands to build and operate ten sets of one-sixteenth-scale hands and tools, and so forth, culminating in perhaps a billion tiny factories to achieve massively parallel operations. This idea was anticipated in part, down to the microscale, by science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein in his 1940 short novel Waldo. As the sizes got smaller, we would have to redesign some tools because the relative strength of various forces would change. Gravity would become less important, surface tension would become more important, Van der Waals attraction would become important, etc. Feynman mentioned these scaling issues during his talk. Nobody has yet attempted to implement this thought experiment.

He concluded his talk with challenges to build a tiny motor and to write the information from a book page on a surface 1/25,000 smaller in linear scale. He offered prizes of $1000 for each challenge. Amazingly, his motor challenge was quickly met by a meticulous craftsman using conventional tools; the motor met the conditions, but did not advance the art. In 1985, Tom Newman (scientist), a Stanford grad student, successfully reduced the first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities by 1/25,000, and collected the second Feynman prize.

K. Eric Drexler later took the Feynman concept of a billion tiny factories and added the idea that they could make more copies of themselves, via computer control instead of control by a human operator, in his 1986 book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology.

After his death, scholars studying the historical development of nanotechnology have concluded that Feynman's actual role in catalyzing nanotechnology research was limited based on recollections from many of the people active in the nascent field in the 1980s and 1990s. However, Feynman's stature as a Nobel laureate and as an iconic figure in 20th century science surely helped advocates of nanotechnology and provided a valuable intellectual link to the past.

Feynman the Teacher

There was also a version of this talk, with the same name, that Feynman gave to high school students. One place that it was given was Los Angeles High School, in about 1960, to a group of fifty selected high school physics students. The talk was well understood and greatly appreciated by the students.[citation needed]

Feynman was also known for his talks in low level science classes. He would ask to teach these classes, which would then be attended by graduate students, or even professors. His unique teaching style allowed him to take incredibly complicated subjects and transform them into a series of lectures that even his rudimentary physics students were capable of comprehending and applying.

See also

  • Foresight Nanotech Institute Feynman Prize

Other References

  • Chris Toumey. “Apostolic Succession.” Engineering & Science , 1/2 (2005): 16-23.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "There's_Plenty_of_Room_at_the_Bottom". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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