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March 10, 2008
Volume 86, Number 10
p. 88

Feynman's Really Lost Lecture

Let's just say that this Newscripts writer has a privileged contact with a California Institute of Technology archivist. That's how I got hold of a ragged, hand-written, coffee-stained, and LONG-FORGOTTEN MANUSCRIPT of Richard Feynman, whose 1959 lecture titled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" is frequently cited, with liturgical gravity, as the theoretical genesis of nanotechnology.

Titled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom, Even When You Get There," the newly obtained paper lays the groundwork for a series of follow-on technologies, each one on a scale 1,000-fold more diminutive than the prior one.

The first such technological framework refers to a scale of trillionths of a meter, corresponding to the nether-nether middle between an atom's nucleus and the outer reaches of its electronic hive.

Unfortunately, the pages detailing Feynman's thoughts on this particular stretch of the dimensional spectrum were smeared beyond recognition with a liquid of some sort that apparently had enough of a volatile component to diffuse the once-legible ink writing into an amorphous, filthy splatch.

No Yocting: Pop! Goes the Universe.

Even so, in surviving scribblings on these pages, the great physicist suggests that trains of electromagnetic pulses, if orchestrated with enough finesse, could sculpt electronic orbitals into "any alluring shape you and nature care to negotiate."

Word on the street is that a movement is already afoot among a cabal of well-placed U.S. researchers to drum up political support for a National Picotechnology Initiative, an early step of which has been to get an unassuming Wikipedia entry for picotechnology in place. Forward-looking as that might sound, the French molecular electronics pioneer Christian Joachim already has planted his own picotech flag.

The website for his Nanosciences Group at the National Center for Scientific Research indicates that his team is working on, and I quote exactly, "Atomic scale technologies (picotechnology)." This is a spatial realm in which positional or conformational changes as small as 50 pm among components could dramatically affect the molecular systems' electronic behavior, Joachim's group notes.

The next technological realm, femtotechnology, really is so 20th century. Think mushroom clouds. But as Feynman's rediscovered paper suggests, femtotechnology also could be so now. After all, manhandling the material world on the quadrillionth (10-15) of a meter scale with more finesse than fission and fusion technologies means treating quarks the way chemists treat atoms. And that opens the way to turning neutrons into protons, or vice versa, opening a new way to turn lead into gold or, if you're priorities are uncommon, gold into lead.

To Feynman, even this modern alchemy would be a yawner. Far more fascinating, said he, would be inventing entirely new quarks, which would open a portal to entirely new kinds of matter or, in his words, "periodic tables from other universes." This would not be your father's chemistry.

Beyond femtotechnology, even Feynman admitted he was treading on the thin ice of speculation. Attotechnology, zeptotechnology, yoctotechnology-all of these could mean fiddling with nature on such a fundamental level that an entirely new genre of technology-triggered annihilation becomes possible.

Perhaps to dissuade those among us who might lust for such dystopian mastery, Feynman, in his paper, hints with some dark humor of a potential end-game scenario, in which, say, unwitting yoctotechnologists cause the vacuum of space itself to transit to a lower energy state.

If that were to happen (by packing several cosmic-ray-caliber packets of energy into one spot, for example), a light-speed spherical front would begin sweeping outward from the initiation point, changing all of the constants of nature as it went. Along its journey to the edges of the universe, all protons, neutrons, and electrons would pop out of existence like soap bubbles.

One consolation is that from pole to pole on Earth, the annihilation would take only four-hundredths of a second. Terrible, yes, except for one thing: There would not be enough time for regret, Feynman pointed out with a sardonic touch in the paper, which astonishingly seems to have disappeared.

This week's column was written by Ivan Amato. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org..

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


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