“Just So Science” – The Feynman Hypothesis

By Elf Eldridge 23/11/2011

In preparation for giving one of the talks I am required to give to complete my PhD, I’ve been reviewing some of the greatest physics stories. Given that my particular field of research is nanotechnology, it’s little wonder that my favourite at the moment is Richard Feynman’s “There’s plenty of room at the bottom” speech that he first gave on the last days of 1959. Feynman was well known for being both brilliant and a real ‘character’, but reading the transcript of his speech from the vantage of modern times gives a wondrous insight into his imagination. The advantage of reflecting on Feynman’s dreams is, amongst other things, that it helps us strip away the veils of what we’re accustomed to and view what we have (or have not!) achieved with some degree of clarity.

He opens by asking his audience to consider the implication of being able to store vast amount of information on the head of a pin or more specifically to imagine “120,000 volumes of library books …. kept on just one library card” half-jokingly suggesting being able to transfer an entire library in a volume no bigger “than any other ordinary air mail letter.” He describes a world where we direct individual atoms to spell out letters and words; where facial recognition technology is possible but requires a single computer the size of the Pentagon; where a ‘car’ can be made from a scant handful of atoms. And these are just the ones we HAVE achieved.

Feynman's dream 'library'

He then goes on to fantasise about nanomachines that autonomously repair the body from inside. We don’t have these yet (we not in the truest sense of the phrase), but we do have materials that help us heal, drugs that combat a huge array of previously incurable diseases, and vaccines that do the same. Even Feynman’s imagination was a little stumped at the implications of world created from scratch by the action of “a billion tiny factories” though, but he did consider a world where bizarre quantum phenomena become mundane and humdrum, and actually useful! And now we have researchers that work on these; three clear examples being quantum cryptography, quantum computing and the measurement of the Casimir effect (listen to this week’s TOSP if you want to hear me completely fail to explain the Casimir as i get a little over-excited!).

Finally, he enticed science forward – not by calling on the intimacies of human nature, or on the economic benefits of research, but by a simple suggestion that it would be fun! What both Sagan and Feynman appreciated in equal kind, was the power of biology. Their understanding of the subtle abilities of an imperfect system gave their imagination a healthy appreciation of what might have been possible right under our noses, if we only had the ability, tool and patience to look.

This is what we know so far about the functions of our own genes. I wonder what Feynman would have thought of it?
This is what we know so far about the functions of our own genes. I wonder what Feynman would have thought of it? Image from Wikimedia commons

I often find myself wishing to hear their thoughts updated with the advances of modern biology: a world of gene therapy, stem cell research, retroviruses, small interfering RNAs, prions and aptamers. A world that somehow discovered parts of these physicist’s imaginations without realising it! Would they bemoan our lack of progress? Or be enthralled by the simplest flash drive or high-throughput screening using ? Both answers are likely, the only certainty is that they would be surprised. Surprised by what we have developed and what we haven’t. Surprised that the politics and economics of our times are often what limits our assistance of our fellow man. Possibly even surprised that we have not simply wiped ourselves out.

Oh and if you want to (you really should!) you can read Feynman’s speech here.

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