Plenty of Room at the Bottom
I would like to describe a field, in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done in principle. This field is not quite the same as the others in that it will not tell us much of fundamental physics (in the sense of, “What are the strange particles?”) but it is more like solid-state physics in the sense that it might tell us much of great interest about the strange phenomena that occur in complex situations. Furthermore, a point that is most important is that it would have an enormous number of technical applications.
What I want to talk about is the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale.
As soon as I mention this, people tell me about miniaturization, and how far it has progressed today. They tell me about electric motors that are the size of the nail on your small finger. And there is a device on the market, they tell me, by which you can write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin. But that’s nothing; that’s the most primitive, halting step in the direction I intend to discuss. It is a staggeringly small world that is below. In the year 2000, when they look back at this age, they will wonder why it was not until the year 1960 that anybody began seriously to move in this direction.
Why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica on the head of a pin?
Let’s see what would be involved. The head of a pin is a sixteenth of an inch across. If you magnify it by 25,000 diameters, the area of the head of the pin is then equal to the area of all the pages of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Therefore, all it is necessary to do is to reduce in size all the writing in the Encyclopaedia by 25,000 times. Is that possible? The resolving power of the eye is about 1/120 of an inch—that is roughly the diameter of one of the little dots on the fine half-tone reproductions in the Encyclopaedia. This, when you demagnify it by 25,000 times, is still 80 angstroms in diameter—32 atoms across, in an ordinary metal. In other words, one of those dots still would contain in its area 1,000 atoms. So, each dot can easily be adjusted in size as required by the photoengraving, and there is no question that there is enough room on the head of a pin to put all of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica.
Furthermore, it can be read if it is so written. Let’s imagine that it is written in raised letters of metal; that is, where the black is in the Encyclopedia, we have raised letters of metal that are actually 1/25,000 of their ordinary size. How would we read it?
If we had something written in such a way, we could read it using techniques in common use today. (They will undoubtedly find a better way when we do actually have it written, but to make my point conservatively I shall just take techniques we know today.) We would press the metal into a plastic material and make a mold of it, then peel the plastic off very carefully, evaporate silica into the plastic to get a very thin film, then shadow it by evaporating gold at an angle against the silica so that all the little letters will appear clearly, dissolve the plastic away from the silica film, and then look through it with an electron microscope!
U“Plenty of Room at the Bottom” (extracts)
Richard P. FEYNMAN