Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1042:
TINY TYPE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1042.

Today, let's write on the head of a pin. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1959, Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman gave a paper titled, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." He asked, "Why can't we write the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the head of a pin?"

When I was a kid, Ripley's Believe it or Not column told about jewelers who could inscribe the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin. The head of a pin offers a very tempting metaphor for smallness. Medieval philosophers once asked how many angels could dance on one. Now we ask how many words can dance in that tiny space.

By now your computer's hard drive -- that little four-inch-square box -- can already hold the contents of a thousand large book volumes. Feynman's proposal no longer sounds very wild.

Feynman was a quantum physicist. A prime tenet of his thinking was that matter becomes indefinite when things are small enough or when they move slowly enough. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle tells us that information blurs on the subatomic level.

But Feynman was talking about far coarser information storage than that. He just asked, "What's to stop us from reducing a single pixel of information down to the size of, say, 30 atoms?" We should be able to do that with a fine optical system.

That was in 1959. Today I got an e-mail message about an ion beam system being developed at Los Alamos. The system writes a pixel of information on a spot only 560 atoms across. That's about six millionths of an inch. And by writing on iridium you don't just get a tiny text. You get a long-lasting one as well.

Sure enough, the report dramatizes the Los Alamos work by saying you can now write four sets of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on a pin. But: They're talking about the pin's shank, not its head. Los Alamos has come within a factor of twenty of Feynman's idea. Still, that's 200 times better than the storage on your computer's hard disk. We are converging on Feynman.

Feynman also pointed out that DNA stores our genetic information right at the atomic level. We're really only trying to approach what already exists in nature. Feynman concluded by offering two prizes of $1000 each, out of his own pocket. One was for reducing print by a factor of 25,000. The other was for making an electric motor that would fit in a 1/64th-inch cube.

He had to pay the electric motor prize only a year later. But he died without paying the prize for reducing print. If Feynman had lived, the Los Alamos process still wouldn't qualify. But we'll see storage on that level in a few years. By the time this program reaches reruns, it could well be possible to write the entire contents of a major library -- on a credit card.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Feynman R.P., There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom. Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 1992, pp. 60-66. (This is a reprint of a paper Feynman gave at an American Physical Society meeting on Dec. 26, 1959.)

Jagdish Mehra, historian of physics, pointed me to the Feynman paper. Judy Myers, UH Library, both provided a copy of the Feynman paper and forwarded a PACS-L article about the Los Alamos accomplishment. Theoretical chemist Theresa Kavanaugh Lienhard provided additional advice.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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