On Dec. 29, 1959, Richard P. Feynman gave an after-dinner talk at an annual American Physical Society meeting in Pasadena, Calif. Feynman was not the public figure he would later become—he had not yet received a Nobel Prize, unraveled the cause of the Challenger accident, written witty books of popular science, or been the subject of biographies, documentaries and even a play starring Alan Alda. But the 41-year-old was already respected by fellow physicists for his originality, his crackling intellect, and his roguish charm.Now there’s a thought for the day.
The announced title of Feynman's lecture, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," mystified the attendees. One later told science writer Ed Regis that the puzzled physicists in the room feared Feynman meant that "there are plenty of lousy jobs in physics."
Actually, Feynman wanted to talk about nanotechnology:
"As far as I can see," Feynman said, the principles of physics "do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom." In fact, he argued, it is "a development which I think cannot be avoided." The physicist spoke of storing all the information in all the world's books on "the barest piece of dust that can be made out by the human eye." He imagined shrinking computers and medical devices, and developing new techniques of manufacturing and mass production. In short, a half-century ago he anticipated what we now call nanotechnology—the manipulation of matter at the level of billionths of a meter.His speculations went the way of most, but now, a half century later,
... hundreds of companies and universities are teeming with nanotech researchers, and the U.S. government has been pouring billions of dollars into its multiagency National Nanotechnology Initiative.There is a fringe Trekkie element, to be sure, often confused with the remarkable but real world nanotechnology, best seen as a specialized form of materials science, as Keiper puts it. It aims at “new medical treatments and diagnostic tools, ultraefficient water-filtration systems, strong and lightweight materials for military armor, and breakthroughs in energy, computing and medicine.” Not desk-size magic boxes that produce just anything.
As it happens, the Trekkies chose Feynman for their hero - creating the impression that he was surely joking, one supposes, and reinforcing a tendency to minimize is prescience in this matter.