There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom

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There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom is the title of a lecture given by physicist Richard Feynman at an American Physical Society meeting at Caltech on December 29, 1959. Feynman considered the possibility of direct manipulation of individual atoms as a more powerful form of synthetic chemistry than those used at the time.



Feynman considered a number of interesting ramifications of a general ability to manipulate matter on an atomic scale. He was particularly interested in the possibilities of denser computer circuitry, and microscopes which could see things much smaller than is possible with scanning electron microscopes. These ideas were later realized by the use of the scanning tunneling microscope, the atomic force microscope and other examples of probe microscopy and storage systems such as Millipede, created by researchers at IBM.

Feynman also suggested that it should be possible, in principle, to make nanoscale machines that "arrange the atoms the way we want", and do chemical synthesis by mechanical manipulation.

He also presented the "weird possibility" of "swallowing the doctor," an idea which he credited in the essay to his friend and graduate student Albert Hibbs. This concept involved building a tiny, swallowable surgical robot by developing a set of one-quarter-scale manipulator hands slaved to the operator's hands to build one-quarter scale machine tools analogous to those found in any machine shop. This set of small tools would then be used by the small hands to build and operate ten sets of one-sixteenth-scale hands and tools, and so forth, culminating in perhaps a billion tiny factories to achieve massively parallel operations. This idea was anticipated in part, down to the microscale, by science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein in his 1942 story Waldo.[1][2]

As the sizes got smaller, one would have to redesign some tools, because the relative strength of various forces would change. Gravity would become unimportant, surface tension would become more important, Van der Waals attraction would become important, etc. Feynman mentioned these scaling issues during his talk. Nobody has yet attempted to implement this thought experiment, although it has been noted that some types of biological enzymes and enzyme complexes (especially ribosomes) function chemically in a way close to Feynman's vision.

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