Richard Feynman’s famous talk titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” is often credited for conceptualising the basic notions of nanotechnology. He delivered this seminal lecture at an American Physical Society meeting at Caltech in 1959. It was aimed at addressing interesting questions such as “How small a machine could one build? How tiny could one write?”
Feynman envisioned to create a new field to deal with manipulating and controlling things on a miniature scale. The lecture paved the way to conceive tiny machines building even tinier machines. In fact, the talk contained all the elements of inspiration for kick-starting developments in synthetic chemistry, molecular engineering, and quantum computers.
It begins with a wonderful realisation of the possibility of writing all 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin! Strange as it may seem, one could undoubtedly find enough room in this article to fit all the information that mankind has ever processed — as a highly compact version. This exploration of the staggeringly small world enabled endless possibilities.
But how do we write on such a small scale? The sputtering techniques we use today come close in proximity to his proposal. A large number of electrons or ions are directed onto a clean surface using electric fields. The accelerated particles would either engrave characters on the surface or remove the superfluous material around the atoms to forge letters. These ideas acquired physical form only with the advent of scanning tunnelling microscopy in the 1980s. One cannot help but wonder how prescient Feynman’s thoughts were.
Storing information physically and reading them on demand seemed to be the crux of the issue. Back when the scientific community had not yet thought of biological structures as machines, he recognised that data storage at nanoscale was already apparent in biological systems. It was remarkable to have it identified only six years after the discovery of DNA as an information-encoding structure.
This talk reveals a fantastically creative mind capable of imagining ahead of its time. Though the speech did not have a tremendous impact back then, it was considered, by the 1990s, as the earliest endorsement of nanotechnological research. Sixty years on, some of Feynman’s ideas may sound inevitably dated, yet the theme remains profoundly pertinent. Give it a read to relish the spectacle of a genius giving free rein to his imagination!
Link to paper: Archive from Caltech library