Sunday, January 10, 2010

There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom

Friday's Wall Street Journal had a piece in the back opinion section (which has items about culture & religion and similar stuff) discussing Richard Feynman's famous 1959 talk "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom". This talk is frequently cited as a seminal moment -- perhaps the first proposition -- of nanotechnology. But, it turns out that when surveyed many practitioners in the field claim not to have been influenced by it and often to have never read it. The article pretty much concludes that Feynman's role in the field is mostly promoted by those who promote the field and extreme visions of it.

Now, by coincidence I'm in the middle of a Feynman kick. I first encountered him in the summer of 1985 when his "as told to" book "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman" was my hammock reading. The next year he would become a truly national figure with his carefully planned science demonstration as part of the Challenger disaster commission. Other than recently watching Infinity, which focuses around his doomed marriage (his wife would die of TB) & the Manhattan project. Somehow, that pushed me to finally read James Gleick's biography "Genius" and now I'm crunching through "Six Easy Pieces" (a book based largely on Feynman's famous physics lecture set for undergraduates), with the actual lectures checked out as well for stuffing on my audio player. I'll burn out soon (this is a common pattern), but will gain much from it.

I had never actually read the talk before, just summaries in the various books, but luckily it is available on-line -- and makes great reading. Feynman gave the talk at the American Physical Society meeting, and apparently nobody knew what he would say -- some thought the talk would be about the physics job market! Instead, he sketched out a lot of crazy ideas that nobody had proposed before -- how small a machine could one build? How tiny could you write? Could you make small machines which could make even smaller machines and so on and so forth? He even put up two $1000 prizes:
It is my intention to offer a prize of $1,000 to the first guy who can take the information on the page of a book and put it on an area 1/25,000 smaller in linear scale in such manner that it can be read by an electron microscope.

And I want to offer another prize---if I can figure out how to phrase it so that I don't get into a mess of arguments about definitions---of another $1,000 to the first guy who makes an operating electric motor---a rotating electric motor which can be controlled from the outside and, not counting the lead-in wires, is only 1/64 inch cube.

The first prize wasn't claimed until the 1980's, but a string of cranks streamed in to claim the second one -- bringing in various toy motors. Gleick describes Feynman's eyes as "glazed over" when yet another person came in to claim the motor prize -- and an "uh oh" when the guy pulled out a microscope. It turned out that by very patient work it was possible to use very conventional technology to wind a motor that small -- and Feynman hadn't actually set aside money for the prize!

Feynman's relationship to nanotechnology is reminiscent of Mendel's to genetics. Mendel did amazing work, decades ahead of his time. He documented things carefully, but his publication strategy (a combination of obscure regional journals and sending his works to various libraries & famous scientists) failed in his lifetime. Only after three different groups rediscovered his work -- after finding much the same results -- was Mendel started on the road to scientific iconhood. Clearly, Mendel did not influence those who rediscovered him and if his work were still buried in rare book rooms, we would have a similar understanding of genetics to what we have today. Yet, we refer to genetics as "Mendelian" (and "non-Mendelian").

I hope nanotechnologists give Feynman a similar respect. Perhaps some of the terms describing his role are hyperbole ("spiritual founder"), but he clearly articulated both some of the challenges that would be encountered (for example, that issues of lubrication & friction at these scales would be quite different) and why we needed to address them. For example, he pointed out that the computer technology of the day (vacuum tubes) would place inherent performance limits on computers -- simply because the speed of light would limit the speed of information transfer across a macroscopic computer complex. He also pointed out that the then-current transistor technology looked like a dead end, as the entire world's supply of germanium would be insufficient. But, unlike naysayers he pointed out that these were problems to solve, and that he didn't know if they really would be problems.

One last thought -- many of the proponents of synthetic biology point out that biology has come up with wonderfully compact machines that we should either copy or harness. And who first articulated this concept? I don't know for sure, but I now propose that 1959 is the year to beat
The biological example of writing information on a small scale has inspired me to think of something that should be possible. Biology is not simply writing information; it is doing something about it. A biological system can be exceedingly small. Many of the cells are very tiny, but they are very active; they manufacture various substances; they walk around; they wiggle; and they do all kinds of marvelous things---all on a very small scale. Also, they store information. Consider the possibility that we too can make a thing very small which does what we want---that we can manufacture an object that maneuvers at that level!

So if the nanotechnologists don't want to call their field Feynmanian, I propose that synthetic biology be renamed such!

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