Monday, April 10, 2006

Room at the bottom (but lonely at the top)

I recently read Richard Feynman's celebrated 1960 lecture, 'There's plenty of room at the bottom'.

The title has become something of a modern cliche. It has been used and overused by hundreds of scientists in the introductory sections of research papers and proposals, picked up by science reporters and the popular media and, in typical fashion, amplified manifold. The result is that it now resonates across the world, a clarion call blasting forth from the nanotechnology bandwagon.

And what a bandwagon it is. Since 2001 the US Government alone has furnished over $3 billion in nanotechnology funding as part of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (including the small amount of $40k that was spent very nobly indeed by supporting my education in 2004). Other countries like Japan (a nano champion) have spent over $1 bn as well. I am tempted to invoke the oft-quoted comparison between $1 billion and the GNP of several small African countries, but instead I offer this article that establishes that the total amount spent by the Bush administration on nanotech so far is exactly equal to the amount spent in Iraq - every week.

Is nanotechnology funding burning a discernible hole in John Taxpayer's pocket? Maybe not. But a simple search for the word 'nanotechnology' in scientific papers indexed on ISI's Web of Science returns 3100 hits, all in the last 10 years - roughly a paper every working day! The word nanotechnology's 'Google Hit Index' (a spurious index that casually associates Google hits with popularity/importance, but I quote it nevertheless) now stands at 123 million. An estimated 25,000 researchers are working on nanotechnology-related science and applications worldwide. A lot of money, time and effort is clearly going into the nanotech business. So where are the applications?

The fact remains that the glorious promise of nanotechnology - of far-reaching and revolutionary applications - remains unfulfilled. The best examples of successful applications that can cite, apart from better hard drives, include stronger tennis racquets (thanks to which His Highness Roger Federer whips All American Roddick every time) and 'coatings for easier cleaning glass'. In all fairness it is probably too soon to be looking for applications that will affect our daily lives. As always the hype was too much and probably not justified, but effective in the catalytic effect it had in attracting scientists and entrepreneurs to the field and enabling them with the money and resources required to explore the possibilities.

Getting back to Feynman's lecture - the great thing about it is that he really did anticipate it all. I had imagined that his lecture would loosely hint at advances in miniaturization of machines and devices without mentioning any specifics. On the contrary, his lecture is full of specific ideas and practical suggestions for devices, many of which now exist! His clairvoyance and perspicacity are truly remarkable. His ideas for 'writing small' are exactly what modern lithography techniques are all about; e.g. e-beam lithography and on a smaller scale, dip-pen writing. Modern Scanning Probe Microscopes (STMs and AFMs) do exactly what he suggested they do: see 100 times better than an electron microscope, i.e. with nanometer resolution. Within a few years of the development of the first Integrated Circuit, he envisaged the miniaturization of electronic circuits to the point where they are merely angstroms wide. After many decades of progress, many years of electronics engineers trying, in futility, to figure out what new letter to prefix VLSI with (V for very, E for extremely, S for stupendously or SG for simply ginormously) and still more glib paeans to Moore's law we are almost there: Intel is currently manufacturing devices with a minimum feature size of 500 angstroms and their new EUV technology hopes to achieve 100 angstrom widths by 2009. He even suggests devices that can be ingested as diagnostic or therapeutic tools - an ingestable endoscopic camera is now on the market while implantable biosensors - especially those that can potentially integrate the delivery of a therapeutic drug - are in their infancy. And he makes a lot of smart suggestions about robotic devices.

The lecture is in the classic Feynman style. Feynman had the exceptional ability to expound on complex scientific issues in the easiest layperson's prose, completely jargon-free. The lecture is eminently readable, yet there is more to it than meets the casual glance. There is always something for the knowledgeable reader to pause and ponder about. Indeed it is supposed to have inspired Eric Drexler to research and write his popular and accessible book on nanotechnology. And I'm sure it inspires scientists to come up with new nano applications even today.

There may be plenty of room at the bottom, but at the lofty heights where Feynman's genius resides, it sure must get lonely.


Blogger Vikrant said...

Nanotechnology is old science dressed up in new garb. I do not recall where I have read this now, but in some swords forged in the mid-east 200 year ago, using iron made in India, single-walled carbon nanotubes have been found! Nanotechnology is be an industry in itself, like biotechnology or information technology, but it is rather an enabling technology that will help develop better applications in other industries.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Badri said...

I half agree with you. I would say much of nano-science is not new science, but don't you think that there is new science possible due to the ability to probe and observe nanoscale events? e.g. the nanoscale force required to unfold a protein may not be a new force but it's certainly newly observed. think about confinement effects in semiconductor nanostructures. The theory may have been somewhat in place earlier but the experiments are certainly new and open up new theories/arguments.

I'd like to see the article about the swords. Are you suggesting the swords had nanotubes *by design*? or accidentally? if it's the latter then it's hardly indicative of anything.

Also I don't understand this talk of 'enabling technologies'. What qualification are you using to say that an industry is a 'real' industry? Digital Instruments (now Veeco) makes AFMs. Molecular Probes sells quantum dots. These guys are obviously in the nanotech 'industry. Yeah, they sell to other companies in other industries and not directly to consumers, so what? Cisco sells most of its gear to other companies and not to you and me, so does that mean that it's not in the IT industry?

also, thanks for the comments :)

5:32 PM  

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