08 May 2010


Richard Feynman's December 1959 lecture, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," is often considered the beginning of serious consideration of what is nowadays called "nanotechnology." This was an address to the American Physical Society in which Feynman asked, "What would happen if we could arrange the atoms one by one the way we want them? What could we do with layered structures with just the right layers?"

Today we have micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) that are created in exactly that way. One ubiquitous example of this is the accelerometer that activates an airbag.

There are also semiconductor heterostructures, i.e. the conjunction of different semiconducter materials to produce otherwise unobtainable electrical or electro-optical results, These are integral to the internet, yet depend on our species' still-blossoming ability to arrange atoms "one by one in the way we want them."

After reviewing recent developments with heterostrictures, Zhores Alferov writes (at p. 13 of the PDF to which I've linked you above): "Many scientists have contributed to this remarkable progress, which not only determines in large measure the future prospects of solid state physics, but in a certain sense affects the future of human
society as well."

Peter Huber and Mark Mills, in The Bottomless Well (2005), went even further than Alferov in their enthusiasm. "It is these same technologies that are now being set off to pluck energy out of nothingness, or very close to it -- to do almost exactly what Maxwell's demon was supposed to do, but honestly." See my earlier comments on Maxwell's demon and the potentially cosmic implications of such developments.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.