History of Nanotechnology
February 16, 2015
Scientists are generally honest people, but there have been egregious counterexamples in the past few decades. About a decade ago, physics had the Schön scandal in which a young physicist manufactured one scientific breakthrough after another before his fraud was exposed. Fortunately, science is built upon a tradition of self-policing in which experimental observations are only valid if they can be reproduced, so the deception was eventually uncovered.
One myth perpetuated about science is that it operates using the so-called scientific method in which the normal course of science is to generate an hypothesis, to create experiments to test that hypothesis, and then, based on the results of the experiments, to either toss the original hypothesis aside, or elevate the hypothesis to a theory. Often, the hypothesis is actually generated a posteriori, occurring after an experiment gives an unexpected result.
When science is described in textbooks and popular media, another falsehood is presented, that of the linear, logical progress of science. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, progress in science occurs as drastic changes in perspective, not as a filling-in-the-blanks exercise. I wrote about Kuhn in an earlier article (Fifty Years of Paradigm Shifting, February 25, 2013).
Peter Schulz of the School of Applied Sciences of the State University of Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil, has posted a paper on arXiv that examines the purported "history" of nanotechnology. The history of nanotechnology is always represented as a linear progression of ideas starting with Richard Feynman's 1959 lecture, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," at an American Physical Society conference. As Schulz writes, that's not really the case.
Feynman's talk concerned a very small subset of nanotechnology; namely, "...the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale." Most of the talk was an exposition on the limits of lithography, as practiced by the semiconductor industry. This talk, given just a year after the invention of the integrated circuit, was mostly an analysis of the possibility of writing the text of the huge Encyclopaedia Brittanica on the head of a pin. Nanoparticles were never mentioned, although de novo creation of novel materials by adding together atoms, one at a time, was.
Buckminsterfullerene (the buckyball) was first created by chemists, and their reward was the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but Feynman intended to replace the chemists of his nano-world by physicists. After all, a chemist's synthesis is not very efficient. In obtaining his product he "mixes this and that, and he shakes it, and he fiddles around." The physicist, however, precisely stacks one atom atop another. As Feynman wrote,
|Cover of the second edition of Thomas Kuhn's, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions."|
Kuhn wrote that newer theories are so unlike the ones that they replaced, a modern scientist cannot even comprehend the logic of the older theories; in short, there's no such thing as a logical progression in science.
(Scan of my copy.)
"... It is interesting that it would be, in principle, possible (I think) for a physicist to synthesize any chemical substance that the chemist writes down."
So, buckminsterfullerene wasn't predicted by, or inspired by, Feynman's talk. In fact, the way that nanotechnology actually evolved was not presaged at all in Feynman's talk. That's the conclusion made also by cultural anthropologist, Chris Toumey, in a 2009 paper in Nature Nanotechnology.
Schulz writes that a better starting point for the evolution of modern nanotechnology would be a 1956 paper on molecular engineering by Arthur R. von Hippel. This paper was published three years before Feynman's 1959 talk. Von Hippel was a preeminent materials scientist who worked on radar during World War II, and he went on to discover the ferroelectricity and piezoelectricity of barium titanate.
Von Hippel was director of an MIT laboratory that brought together the many scientific specialties that would become contributors to the nanotechnology enterprise. Von Hippel, as quoted by Schulz, wrote in that paper,
“…Instead of taking prefabricated materials and trying to devise engineering applications consistent with their macroscopic properties, one builds materials from their atoms and molecules for the purpose at hand…”
There are other, chemical roots of nanotechnology, some of them quite ancient, that predate Feynman's talk. Michael Faraday, who made so many contributions to modern science, mostly through careful analysis of unexpected observations, discovered the special optical properties of gold nanoparticles by observation of thin gold sheets under a microscope. Eventually, he refined his experiments by making colloids of gold nanoparticles in solution.
In his experiments, Faraday demonstrated the Tyndall effect, the scattering of light by small particles that transforms a beam of light into a cone of light. Faraday's colloids, now more than 150 years old, have been preserved, and they are on display at the Faraday Museum in the Royal Institution. It's unlikely that any of my laboratory artifacts will survive even a few decades.
Even before Faraday, gold nanoparticles were used as a glass colorant during the time of the Roman Empire. In 1914, just after Faraday, German chemist, Wolfgang Ostwald (1883-1943), published a book about colloids entitled," Die Welt der vernachlässigten Dimensionen" (The world of neglected dimensions, 1914).
There were three Nobel Prize awards for colloids. The 1925 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Austrian-Hungarian chemist, Richard Zsigmondy (1865-1928) for "his demonstration of the heterogeneous nature of colloid solutions and for the methods he used." The 1926 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Swedish chemist, Theodor Svedberg (1884-1971), for "his work on disperse systems." The 1926 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to French physicist, Jean Baptiste Perrin (1870-1942), for "his work on the discontinuous structure of matter, and especially for his discovery of sedimentation equilibrium." Perrin verified Einstein's theory of Brownian motion.
It was fifteen years after Feynman's talk that the term, "nanotechnology," was coined by Norio Taniguchi (1912-1999), a professor at the Tokyo University of Science. Nanotechnology entered the public spotlight more than a decade after that with Eric Drexler's 1986 book, "Engines of creation: the coming era of nanotechnology." Today, nanotechnology is defined more by the scientific papers published in its name than by any formal definition.
- Peter Schulz, "Nanotechnology: a slightly different history," arXiv, January 30, 2015. Originally published in Portuguese as "Nanotecnologia - uma história um pouco diferente," Ciência Hoje, vol. 308 (October 2013), pp. 26-29.
- Richard P. Feynman, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," Annual Meeting of the American Physical Society, California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, California, December 29, 1959); published in Caltech Engineering and Science, vol. 23, no. 5 (February 1960), pp 22-36 (via zyvex.com).
- Chris Toumey, "Plenty of Gloom and Doom at the Bottom?" Nature Nanotechnology, July 2009, vol. 4, no. 7 (July, 2009), pp. 396-397.
- Arthur von Hippel, "Molecular Engineering," Science, vol. 123, no. 3191 (Feb., 24, 1956), pp. 315-317, DOI: 10.1126/science.123.3191.315.
- Michael Faraday's gold colloids, Royal Institution Web Site.
- Prof. Wolfgang Ostwald, "Die Welt der vernachlässigten Dimensionen, eine Einführung in die Kolloidchemie," Steinkopff Verlag Dresden, 1944, 325 pages (via Amazon.de).
- Lists of Nobel Prizes and Laureates, Nobel Media AB Web Site.
- N. Taniguchi, "On the Basic Concept of 'Nano-Technology'," Proc. Intl. Conf. Prod. Eng. Tokyo, Part II, Japan Society of Precision Engineering, 1974.
- Eric Drexler, "Engines of creation: the coming era of nanotechnology," Anchor Books, 1986 (Free Online Version from E-drexler.com).
Permanent Link to this article
Linked Keywords: Scientist; decade; physics; Schön scandal; physicist; science; scientific; fraud; experiment; experimental; reproducibility; mythology; myth; scientific method; hypothesis; scientific theory; a posteriori; textbook; mass media; popular media; narrative structure; linear; logic; logical; Thomas Kuhn; The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; State University of Campinas; São Paulo, Brazil; arXiv; history; nanotechnology; Richard Feynman; There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom; American Physical Society; photolithography; lithography; semiconductor industry; invention; integrated circuit; analysis; Encyclopaedia Brittanica; pin; nanoparticle; material; atom; Buckminsterfullerene; chemist; Nobel Prize in Chemistry; chemical synthesis; product; chemical compound; chemical substance; cultural anthropology; cultural anthropologist; Chris Toumey; Nature Nanotechnology; molecular engineering; Arthur R. von Hippel; materials science; materials scientist; radar; World War II; ferroelectricity; piezoelectricity; barium titanate; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; MIT; laboratory; engineering; macroscopic scale; material properties; molecule; chemistry; chemical; optics; optical; gold; optical microscope; colloid; solution; Michael Faraday (1791-1867); Faraday effect; farad; Wikimedia Commons; Tyndall effect; light scattering; light beam; cone; Faraday Museum; Royal Institution; Wolfgang Ostwald (1883-1943); Nobel Prize; Austria; Austrian; Hungary; Hungarian; Richard Zsigmondy (1865-1928); Sweden; Swedish; Theodor Svedberg (1884-1971); dispersion; disperse; Nobel Prize in Physics; France; French; Jean Baptiste Perrin (1870-1942); equilibrium; Einstein; Brownian motion; Norio Taniguchi (1912-1999); professor; Tokyo University of Science; Eric Drexler; Engines of creation: the coming era of nanotechnology; scientific literature; scientific paper.
Latest Books by Dev Gualtieri
Thanks to Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing for his favorable review of Secret Codes!
Blog Article Directory on a Single Page
- Levitation - March 27, 2017
- Soybean Graphene - March 23, 2017
- Income Inequality and Geometrical Frustration - March 20, 2017
- Wireless Power - March 16, 2017
- Trilobite Sex - March 13, 2017
- Freezing, Outside-In - March 9, 2017
- Ammonia Synthesis - March 6, 2017
- High Altitude Radiation - March 2, 2017
- C.N. Yang - February 27, 2017
- VOC Detection with Nanocrystals - February 23, 2017
- Molecular Fountains - February 20, 2017
- Jet Lag - February 16, 2017
- Highly Flexible Conductors - February 13, 2017
- Graphene Friction - February 9, 2017
- Dynamic Range - February 6, 2017
- Robert Boyle's To-Do List for Science - February 2, 2017
- Nanowire Ink - January 30, 2017
- Random Triangles - January 26, 2017
- Torricelli's law - January 23, 2017
- Magnetic Memory - January 19, 2017
- Graphene Putty - January 16, 2017
- Seahorse Genome - January 12, 2017
- Infinite c - January 9, 2017
- 150 Years of Transatlantic Telegraphy - January 5, 2017
- Cold Work on the Nanoscale - January 2, 2017
- Holidays 2016 - December 22, 2016
- Ballistics - December 19, 2016
- Salted Frogs - December 15, 2016
- Negative Thermal Expansion - December 12, 2016
- Verbal Cues and Stereotypes - December 8, 2016
- Capacitance Sensing - December 5, 2016
- Gallium Nitride Tribology - December 1, 2016
- Lunar Origin - November 27, 2016
- Pumpkin Propagation - November 24, 2016
- Math Anxiety - November 21, 2016
- Borophene - November 17, 2016
- Forced Innovation - November 14, 2016
- Combating Glare - November 10, 2016
- Solar Tilt and Planet Nine - November 7, 2016
- The Proton Size Problem - November 3, 2016
- Coffee Acoustics and Espresso Foam - October 31, 2016
- SnIP - An Inorganic Double Helix - October 27, 2016
- Seymour Papert (1928-2016) - October 24, 2016
- Mapping the Milky Way - October 20, 2016
- Electromagnetic Shielding - October 17, 2016
- The Lunacy of the Cows - October 13, 2016
- Random Coprimes and Pi - October 10, 2016
- James Cronin (1931-2016) - October 6, 2016
- The Ubiquitous Helix - October 3, 2016
- The Five-Second Rule - September 29, 2016
- Resistor Networks - September 26, 2016
- Brown Dwarfs - September 22, 2016
- Intrusion Rheology - September 19, 2016
- Falsifiability - September 15, 2016
- Fifth Force - September 12, 2016
- Renal Crystal Growth - September 8, 2016
- The Normality of Pi - September 5, 2016
- Metering Electrical Power - September 1, 2016
Deep Archive 2006-2008