'There's plenty of room at the bottom'

Nov. 1, 2000
The headline above comes from a chapter in a collection of essays and speeches by Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winner and eminent physicist who died in 1988.

The headline above comes from a chapter in a collection of essays and speeches by Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winner and eminent physicist who died in 1988. The book, "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" (Perseus Publishing; Cambridge, MA), has recently been republished as a paperback. I can recommend it highly. It's a somewhat eclectic collection, as might be expected from this highly unusual and idiosyncratic physicist. But you do not have to be an atomic physicist to enjoy this little book.

In one of the chapters of this book, Feynman describes his early days as a raw graduate student associated with the highly secret wartime Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Feynman delighted in tweaking the noses of the lab's bureaucracy even to the extent of picking the locks on "secret" file cabinets and surreptitiously emptying the locked desk drawer of the eminent scientist Edward Teller! On a more serious note, in a later chapter, Feynman discusses his views on the relationship between science and religion—an unusually philosophical article for this highly pragmatic scientist.

Writing on the head of a pin

But what really caught my attention was a fascinating chapter that is entitled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," a republication of a famous talk that Feynman gave to the American Physical Society on Dec. 29, 1959. In the talk, Feynman expounds on the possibilities of miniaturization, decades ahead of his time, but uncannily prescient. He describes the potential feasibility of putting the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica on the head of a pin and the possibility of making a motor smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. As a result of his predictions, Feynman is sometimes referred to as "the father of nanotechnology."

At the end of the article, Feynman issued two challenges and offered a prize of $1000 to the first person to meet either challenge. One of Feynman's challenges was to build a rotating electric motor that could be controlled from the outside and, not counting the lead-in wires, would be only a 1/64-inch cube. Feynman paid out on that challenge less than a year later, to Bill McLellan, a Caltech alumnus. Much later, in 1983, Feynman gave a talk to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in which he predicted that "with today's technology we can easily . . . construct motors a one-fortieth of that size in each dimension, 64,000 times smaller than . . . McLellan's motor, and we can make thousands of them at a time." Subsequent developments in nanotechnology have proved Feynman's prediction to be entirely correct.

It took rather longer for the second challenge to be met—26 years, in fact. Feynman offered a $1000 prize to the first person to take the information on the page of a book and put it on an area 1/25,000 smaller in linear scale and in such a manner that it could be read by an electron microscope. The scale of this challenge was equivalent to writing all 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica on the head of a pin. A Stanford University graduate student, Tom Newman, using electron-beam lithography, was eventually able to write the first page of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities at a 1/25,000 reduction in scale. Feynman's ground-breaking paper has often been credited with envisioning the field of nanotechnology, and there are now regular "Feynman Nanotechnology Prize" competitions.

Although Feynman always took his work very seriously, he frequently said that he did physics not for the glory or for awards and prizes but for the fun of it, for the sheer pleasure of finding things out about how the world works and what makes it tick. I never met Feynman, but I think this little book comes close to giving the reader a sense of the man and how he worked and lived. The book is not elegantly written, but it is full of the enthusiasm that Feynman clearly had for life and for his work. Feynman believed that science, when used responsibly, can not only be fun but can also be of inestimable value to the future of human society.

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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