2009: A year to celebrate

rich3.jpgtintin2.jpgTintin and Richard FeynmanTintin and Richard Feynman

Jennifer: My heroes: Tintin and Richard Feynman

2009 is a big year for anniversaries.

80 years ago, my favourite comic book hero Tintin first appeared in a Belgian newspaper.

25 years ago, my parents were married.

1 year ago, I saw falling snow for the first time.

I could keep going with my list of 2009 anniversaries which hold considerable personal significance, but feel that I should also mention several momentous scientific milestones that give us cause to celebrate.

400 years ago, Galileo Galilei demonstrated the use of a telescope to Venetian authorities.

200 years ago, the English naturalist, Charles Darwin, was born. 50 years later, his seminal work was published, entitled “On The Origin Of Species”, outlining his theory of natural selection.

I remain an avid fan of Herge’s Tintin, and was grateful to have at least a basic understanding of social Darwinism while wading through Joseph Conrad’s “Heart Of Darkness”. However, there is a 2009 milestone about which I am even more excited- the 50th anniversary of the oratorical masterpiece by Richard Feynman; “There’s Plenty Of Room At The Bottom”. This famous lecture, given in 1959 to the American Physics Society, explored the manipulation of matter on the atomic scale. It signifies the introduction of the concept of nanotechnology and catalysed research in this field.

The American physicist and Nobel Prize winner Feynman demonstrated his incredible imagination in postulating the possibilities presented by “manipulating and controlling things on a small scale”.

“It would be interesting in surgery if you could swallow the surgeon. You put the mechanical surgeon inside the blood vessel and it goes into the heart and ‘looks’ around”. Feynman acknowledged this as a “wild idea”, but in 2009 robots can be programmed to perform routine surgical procedures, and are continually moving closer to the mainstream.

Feynman also talked of improving the resolution of the scanning electron microscope, “so it should be possible to see the individual atoms”. This idea was later realised by the scanning tunnelling and atomic force microscopes, developed in 1981 and 1986 respectively. In addition to providing higher resolution than the SEM, AFM generates a true 3-dimensional surface profile.

Miniaturising the computer was considered by Feynman as a very real possibility. “Computing machines are very large; they fill rooms…There is plenty of room to make them smaller”. In 2009, miniaturising electronics to the nanoscale is being researched by scientists across the disciplines. A team at the University Of Southampton has recently announced the success of their lab-on-a-chip; miniaturised sensors that measure marine environments at a depth of 1600 metres.

It is strange to think that 400 years ago, Galileo used the telescope to behold the skies. It was not until 350 years later that we started moving towards the staggeringly small world that is below. Feynman opined, “In the year 2000, when they look back at this age, they will wonder why it was not until the year 1960 that anybody began seriously to move in this direction”. In the year 2009, I am wondering whether he knew that 50 years on, we would still be descending.

Originally published on Blog@Nanovic for Nanotechnology Victoria.

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