Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman. Photo courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Weber Collection,

Richard Feynman. Photo courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Weber Collection,

Richard Feynman (1918–1988) was considered a visionary for being one of the first scientists to predict the emergence of nanotechnology.

One of the most famous physicists in the post–World War II era, Feynman, a New York City native, obtained an undergraduate degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and carried out doctoral work at Princeton University. Early in his career, Feynman worked on the Manhattan Project at the then-secret national laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where, on July 16, 1945, he was among the first to observe the detonation of an atomic bomb. By 1948, while working as a professor at Cornell University, Feynman had reconstructed a large part of quantum mechanics and electrodynamics to resolve the meaningless results that the old quantum electrodynamics theory (QED) sometimes produced. In addition, to describe QED more efficiently, he created a type of graph—now known as Feynman diagrams—to represent the interaction of elementary particles.

In 1959, while teaching at the California Institute of Technology, Feynman gave a talk entitled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” Inspired by a decade of developments in microelectronics, transistors, and shrinking electronic devices (see N. Bruce Hannay), he predicted in his talk the rise of a field of science in which objects would be manipulated and controlled “on a small scale,” by which he mean at the atomic and molecular level. At this level, he noted, “we have new kinds of forces and new kinds of possibilities, new kinds of effects.” Though he did not use the word nanotechnology (that would come later), this seminal talk was one of the first to predict the emergence of the field. Today, nanotechnology is defined as the understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers* (the nanoscale), where unique phenomena enable novel applications. To achieve construction on this scale, Feynman proposed a tool-building process in which each tool produced 10 new tools that were one-quarter the size of the original. He theorized that in this manner it would be possible to produce millions of tools that work on an atomic scale. He also pointed out that as size decreased in each generation, the tools would have to be redesigned since friction and gravity would matter less and intermolecular (van der Waals) attractions would become a concern.

As part of his talk Feynman emphasized the need for interdisciplinary collaboration in the sciences. He urged physicists, for example, to invent an electron microscope one hundred times better than what was currently available to assist biologists and chemists in observing cells and chemical structures. (Although this particular goal has not been achieved, scientists can now manipulate atoms with an electron microscope.) Today nanotechnology is a crossroads of physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, material science, and medicine.

To encourage innovation in scaling-down technology, Feynman also issued two challenges to young scientists: to rewrite a page of a book 1/25,000 smaller on a linear scale; and to build a rotating electric motor—a nanomotor—that could be enclosed in a 1/64-cubic-inch area. He promised $1,000 to the first person to succeed in each challenge; both prizes were claimed by 1985.

Through his high-profile scientific achievements and best-selling books, Feynman became one of the best-known scientists in the world. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1965 for his work in QED. He is also known for the prominent role he played in the 1986 investigation of the Challenger space shuttle accident. Feynman was married three times; he and his third wife, Gweneth Howarth, had a son and a daughter.

*Note: 1 nanometer = one billionth of a meter

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