Every movement has its founding texts; for nanotechnology there’s general agreement that Richard Feynman’s lecture There’s plenty of room at the bottom is where the subject started, at least as a concept. The lecture is more than forty years old, but I sense that its perceived significance has been growing in recent years. Not least of the reasons for this is that, as the rift between the mainstream of academic and commercial nano- science and technology and the supporters of Drexler has been growing, both sides, for different reasons, find it convenient to emphasis the foundational role of Richard Feynman. Drexler himself often refers to his vision of nanotechnology as the “Feynman vision”, thus explicitly claiming the endorsement of someone many regard as the greatest native-born American scientist of all time. For mainstream nanoscientists, on the other hand, increasing the prominence given to Feynman has the welcome side-effect of diminishing the influence of Drexler.
Many such founding documents easily slip into the category of papers that are “much-cited, but seldom read”, particularly when they were published in obscure publications that aren’t archived on the web. Feynman’s lecture is easily available, so there’s no excuse for this fate befalling it now. Nonetheless, one doesn’t often read very much about what Feynman actually said. This is a pity, not because his predictions of the future were flawless, nor because he presented a coherent plan that nanotechnologists today should be trying to follow. Feynman was a brilliant theoretical physicist observing science and technology as it was in 1959. It’s fascinating, as we try to grope towards an understanding of where technology might lead us in the next forty years, to look back at these predictions and suggestions. Some of what he predicted has already happened, to an extent that probably would have astonished him at the time. In other cases, things haven’t turned out the way he thought they would. We’ve seen some spectacular breakthroughs that were completely unanticipated. Finally, Feynman suggested some directions that as yet have not happened, and whose feasibility isn’t yet established. In my next post in this series, I’ll use the luxury of hindsight to look in detail at Plenty of Room at the Bottom, to ask just how well Feynman’s predictions and hunches have stood the test of time.