Richard Phillips Feynman was an American physicist and Nobel Laureate whose 1959 lecture, “There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” is often credited with inspiring the development of nanotechnology.
Feynman was born in 1918 in New York City, and died in 1988 in Los Angeles, California. He received a bachelor's degree in 1939 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate in 1942 from Princeton University. He was a professor of physics at Cornell University from 1945 to 1950 and at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) from 1950 onward. In 1965, he was one of three physicists awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the development of quantum electrodynamics.
Feynman is widely credited for sparking initial interest in nanoscale work with a lecture he gave on December 29, 1959, at a meeting of the American Physical Society at Caltech. Feynman's lecture was published as an article titled, “There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” in Engineering & Science in 1960, and has been republished 10 times. In his talk, Feynman proposed miniaturization on the atomic scale and the ability to manipulate atoms and molecules.
He offered evocative examples of what such miniaturization could accomplish, including writing the entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin, creating a mechanical surgeon small enough to be swallowed, and developing a factory of self-replicating micro-machines. At the close of his speech, Feynman offered two $1,000 prizes to the first person who developed a micro-miniaturized electric motor and miniaturized a page of writing. Shortly after Feynman's challenge, on November 12, 1960, James McLellan claimed the Feynman prize for a micro-motor.
A resurgence of interest in Feynman's 1959 lecture was prompted by a series of events in the mid-1980s and Feynman's death in 1988. In 1985, the second Feyn-man prize, for miniaturizing the printed text of a page, was claimed when Stanford University graduate student Tom Newman used an electron beam to write the first page of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities on a crystalline surface. In 1986, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer referenced Feynman's 1960 article in their Nobel lecture on their invention of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM), which had been previously referred to as a Feynman Machine.
K. Eric Drexler may have done the most to link Feynman to nanotechnology, first by referencing Feynman's 1959 lecture in the opening paragraph of his first publication on nanotechnology in 1981 and then by presenting his own articulation of Feynman's vision in Engines of Creation in 1986 and in later publications. The linkage of Feynman to nanotechnology continued in 2000 when Bill Clinton invoked Feynman's 1959 lecture in discussing nanotechnology in a speech he gave at Caltech in which he outlined his vision for the National Nanotechnology Initiative that would receive funding from the U.S. Congress later that year.
Despite the frequency with which Feynman is credited with beginning the conversation about what might be possible at the nanoscale, some scholars question Feynman's role in the development of nanotechnology, suggesting that Feynman's influence has been applied retroactively to lend historical authenticity to the field and that Feynman's talk had little to no direct influence on early developments in the field. Based on a citation history of “Plenty of Room” and responses from scientists involved in three major developments in nanotechnology: the invention of the STM in 1981, the invention of the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) in 1986, and the first manipulation of atoms with the STM in 1990, anthropologist Christopher Toumey found that Feynman's 1959 talk had no influence on these developments.
In 1983, Feynman gave a follow-up lecture, “Infinitesimal Machinery,” which was published in 1993 in the Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems. In this lecture, which he described as a follow-up to his 1959 talk, he discussed his earlier predictions that had been realized, such as miniaturized writing, and those that had not yet been realized, such as tiny machines.
Clinton, William J., Drexler, K. Eric, National Nanotechnology Initiative (U.S.).
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