The Bridge - February 2018 - 37

History Spotlight

Richard Feynman's
"There's Plenty of Room
at the Bottom" Talk
by: Doug Tougaw

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was one of the
most prolific and well-known physicists of the
20th century. His work in superfluidity, quantum
electrodynamics, and quantum gravity set the course
of much of the research that has followed since.
He was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Physics
in 1965 for his work in quantum electrodynamics.
Perhaps even more importantly, his pedagogical
work influenced generations of future physicists and
engineers. The Feynman Lectures on Physics were
(and still are) the first and best exposure that many
Eta Kappa Nu members had to fundamental ideas
of mechanics, electromagnetism, and quantum
mechanics.
In 1959, Dr. Feynman presented a talk to the
American Physical Society in Pasadena entitled,
"There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." In this
talk, he outlined the physical limitations of what
we now know as nanotechnology or quantum
engineering, and he was among the first to point
out just how small things could really get. By
performing calculations that were accessible to
any undergraduate student, he pointed out that it
would be possible to write the entire Encyclopedia
Britannica on the head of a pin and still have
approximately 1000 atoms within each dot in a
half-tone reproduction. Such a dot would be about
8.5 nm in diameter-startlingly close to the 7-10 nm
minimum feature size that is the current state of the
art. He followed this prediction by calculating that all
of the information published in all of the books in
the world (up to 1959) could be stored in a cube of
material one two-hundredth of an inch on each side,
"the barest piece of dust that can be made out by
the human eye."

Dr. Feynman was
also able to bring in
biological comparisons
to DNA sequences
and brain structure to
prove that high-density
information storage and computational power had
already been demonstrated by nature. His thesis
seems to be that if it has already been done by
nature, then eventually humanity will be able to do
it, too.
By combining a thorough knowledge of the physical
limitations of matter with an optimism for human
ingenuity, Dr. Feynman predicted a majority of the
incredible progress that has been made in the nearly
60 years since his talk.
It would be nice to say that his talk provided a
roadmap that guided scientists and engineers
working over the next several decades to achieve
his vision. Unfortunately, his talk did not receive the
attention it deserved at the time, and it was only
in the 1990s when it was re-discovered and its
propositions were verified in hindsight. It makes one
wonder how many other works like this one are just
waiting for us to re-discover them in the historical
archives.
Full text of Feynman's Talk:
http://www.its.caltech.edu/~feynman/plenty.html

HKN.ORG

37


http://www.its.caltech.edu/~feynman/plenty.html http://www.HKN.ORG

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