Plenty of room at the bottom?

Visionary or mere daydreamer? Siddharth Trivedi investigates Feynman’s contributions to nanoengineering

Richard Feynman was an American theoretical physicist well-known for his work in quantum electrodynamics for which he won a Nobel Prize in 1965, at the age of 47. The famous pictorial representation schemes in quantum physics that he developed, were later named after him as Feynman diagrams. In contract, his contributions in the nanoengineering field are relatively unknown – in particular, his lecture There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom given at Caltech in 1959. At the time, the atomic scale was mostly inaccessible, yet this lecture identified him as a visionary for the future of engineering. But was Feynman’s contribution actually important or was this simply the ramblings of a daydreaming physicist?

There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom consists of many revolutionary ideas, particularly in comparison to the advances at the time. Feynman brainstormed what could possibly be achieved in nanoengineering – the practical use of manipulating matter on an atomic scale. He essentially predicted atomic-scale nanofabrication when he posed a challenge to the scientific community: why can we not write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the head of a pin?

That vision was famously realised in 1990, scientists at IBM write their company’s name using the scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) to manipulate individual xenon atoms. Feynman further proclaimed that with the capacity of atomic fabrication, “all of the information that man has carefully accumulated in books in the world can’t be written […] in a cube of material one two-hundredth of an inch wide.” Imagine the possibilities!

He was one of the first to envisage biological structures in terms of machines and was aware of the engineering capabilities of nanofabrication. He described nanomachines that would perform surgery from inside the body. This being through the self-assembly of atoms, with the capability of replicating to perform surgery and subsequently deconstruct once finished.

Still, all this talk of futuristic technology didn’t actually stimulate any new research in the field. In fact, all following discoveries and developments were in complete ignorance of the lecture. However, looking back almost sixty years, much of Feynman’s visions seem relevant. People look at his ideas to imagine what the future might hold, and for that, he is to be commended. So is an unsung hero simply defined by practical contributions to one’s field, or the ability to capture the imagination of the wider audience?

From Issue 11

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