The Nano Visionary

A fascinating account of a scientist whose Vision was accessible to everyone.

While many people define genius differently, most agree that Richard Feynman was one. There is probably no better example of his brilliance than his famous talk, There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom. It not only launched a revolution in physics and engineering that is still being played out today, it shows us how a true visionary really thinks.

When Feynman stepped up to the podium to address the American Physical Society a few days after X-mas in 1959, no one could have been prepared for what took place that day. With a vague title, armed with no props or complex apparatus, Feynman would singlehandedly pioneer nanotechnology—engineering at the microscopic level—a field that even now is considered to be at the forefront of human endeavor.

He didn’t begin with grandiose terms, but simply asked the question: “Why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica on the head of a pin?” In that moment, he created an entirely new field, fundamental in many industries and worth billions today, with very little in the way of prologue
or precursor.

Feynman was clearly a dreamer, but he went about it in a very practical, business-like way. Once he suggested the possibility of writing Encyclopaedia Brittanica on the head of a pin, he immediately launched into some back-of-the-envelope calculations to establish the feasibility of the task. He then asked almost reflexively, “Why not every book in the world?”

From there he was off and running. How to write that small? And if we can write microscopic books, why can’t we build tiny molecular machines? Yet Feynman did not only see the possibilities, he saw the problems too. Undeterred, in his talk he conjured up potential workarounds for every obstacle, many which later proved to be viable.

When you read Feynman’s talk, you get the feeling that he is not so much a physicist or an engineer, but an explorer. Much like the famous biologist E.O. Wilson, he wanders around the nano-ecosystem, picking up objects of interest, examining them, figuring out where they fit and moving on.

Fascinatingly, Feynman spoke—and thought—naturally. Even when speaking to esteemed scientists, he did so as if he were just chatting with the proverbial man on the street. His 1959 talk, despite its groundbreaking ramifications, can be understood by a relatively talented high school student. By putting things in simple terms, he gained clarity and so did his audience. Even the term “nanotechnology” was not used until 15 years later, at a scientific conference in 1974. Until then, it was just Feynman’s “room at the bottom.”

By the end of his talk, Feynman had covered an amazing amount of ground: molecular computers, microscopic machines, mechanical “surgeons” that can operate inside blood vessels and issues regarding scale and quantum effects. All were held up to light, examined and explored. Each remains at the core of nanotechnology today.

In his conclusion Feynman did something unusual. He issued two challenges and offered $1,000 of his own money for the completion of each. The first was to write text at nano-scale and the second was to create a microscopic motor. It took less than a year for the motor to be completed and text was first reduced to the required scale in 1985.

Yet even more important than the completion of the challenges was Feynman’s motivation for issuing them and offering his own money to do so. It wasn’t enough for him to come up with the idea or even to work out paths to solutions. His real passion was seeing problems solved and he was never reluctant to collaborate or share credit.

Feynman devoted his life to unlocking the secrets of the universe, but was just as passionate about the people in it. He was no lone genius, working in secret, but saw science as an inherently social activity. It was not enough for him to “hit a target no one else can see,” he wanted us to see it too.

And that’s what made Feynman a special kind of visionary. He let us in. It wasn’t enough for him to merely demonstrate brilliance, he wanted to share it so that we could make it our own.

“Have a Vision. It is the ability to see the invisible. If you can see the invisible, you can achieve the impossible.”