Nanotechnology: Richard Feynman

When you hear people speak about the history of nanotechnology, you will most often hear them mention Richard Feynman. FeynmanStampFeynman was an American theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner. His talk, There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, was presented at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) on December 29, 1959.

In his talk at CalTech, Feynman invited those in attendance to image what would happen if they could directly manipulate atoms. 

“… I would like to describe a field, in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done in principle. This field is not quite the same as the others in that it will not tell us much of fundamental physics (in the sense of, “What are the strange particles?”) but it is more like solid-state physics in the sense that it might tell us much of great interest about the strange phenomena that occur in complex situations. Furthermore, a point that is most important is that it would have an enormous number of technical applications…”

“… What could we do with layered structures with just the right layers? What would the properties of materials be if we could really arrange the atoms the way we want them? They would be very interesting to investigate theoretically. I can’t see exactly what would happen, but I can hardly doubt that when we have some control of the arrangement of things on a small scale we will get an enormously greater range of possible properties that substances can have, and of different things that we can do.

Consider, for example, a piece of material in which we make little coils and condensers (or their solid state analogs) 1,000 or 10,000 angstroms in a circuit, one right next to the other, over a large area, with little antennas sticking out at the other end – a whole series of circuits. Is it possible, for example, to emit light from a whole set of antennas, like we emit radio waves from an organized set of antennas to beam the radio programs to Europe? The same thing would be to beam the light out in a definite direction with very high intensity. (Perhaps such a beam is not very useful technically or economically.)…”

Toward the end of his remarks, Feynman said, “Now, you might say, “Who should do this and why should they do it?” Well, I pointed out a few of the economic applications, but I know that the reason that you would do it might be just for fun. But have some fun! Let’s have a competition between laboratories. Let one laboratory make a tiny motor which it sends to another lab which sends it back with a thing that fits inside the shaft of the first motor…”

Because of his reputation, his remarks had a great impact on the scientist of his time and those who followed. His influence was felt in the drive to create apparatus that would allow the study of matter at smaller and smaller sizes.

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