How small is small is the question asked when dealing with nanotechnology. Nanotechnology concerns itself with technological innovation at an extremely small level, down near the atom size, at least as near to that as possible. A good example, one that everyone utilizes today, is the small batteries for watches.
In the not too distant past wrist watches had to wound by hand; now because of breakthroughs in smaller-scale electronics, tiny batteries ep the hands moving making it possible to forgo the twenty-four hour chore of winding. This is only a beginning of what these newest molecular innovations are all about as technology maneuverings are getting smaller and smaller. Those pea-sized batteries are mammoth, however, when compared with more recent uses of nanotechnology. In fact, nano as a word, is fairly new in itself; fifty years ago, few would have known that it meant microscopically minute. When, and by whom did this phenomena come about?
In 1959, Richard P. Feynmen, at a talk before a group of his fellow members of the American Physical Society at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech,) spoke about the use of what is now labeled nanotechnology. “What I want to talk about is the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale.” That talk is now a classic and can be read in its entirety online.
An interesting bit of that sharing of his vision is how he projected what the world might be thinking in the year 2000, about forty years hence. “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.”
Those words came about when he was describing to them what others were talking about, motors the same size as a finger nail, etc, but he assured his audience that all these were things of the past, “primitive,” and then he spoke of what he envisioned for the future.
Richard P. Feynmen won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his work in this field. He was born May 11th, 1918, was educated at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University, obtaining his Ph.D. in 1942. He was Professor of Theoretical Physics at Cornell University from 1945 until 1950, and thereafter held the same position at California Institute of Technology from 1950 to 1959. He died February 15th, 1988.
Nano as a descriptive term was first used in 1974 where it became a word of the week. Norio Taniguchi first used it to mean technologies of “ultra fine dimensions.” At that time most, of the talk concerned NASA, and its innovations and newly developed ideas. The use of the word grew. It might also be said that the word outgrew its first descriptive use – not by becoming larger, but by becoming ever so much smaller, and at the same time harder to define. Too, its acceptance in highly technical societies helped it add other dimensions to its use as a word. It apparently means different things to different people, and as its innovations and its possibilities expand, so do its definitions.
In 1988 the first university course was taught at Stanford on “Nanotechnology and Exploratory Engineering,” by Eric Drexler, who wrote and lectured on the subject. In all about fifty students took the ten-week course. It generated a lot of enthusiasm, an enthusiasm that continues to this day.
In 1989, the first national conference was held to learn more of this exciting new field. That, too, was held at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California. At least it was scheduled for that site, but an earthquake forced them to move the national meeting to Garden Court Hotel, in Palo, Alto. This conference also was headed by Drexler. Sponsoring the event was the chemical company, E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., Inc.
In 1990, Japan was involved in developing this new small technology, and the first journal, Nanotechnology, was published. In fact, it was now clear that nanotechnology belonged to the world. Countries interested in developments and in securing grants for further study were, “Japan, US, Britain, France” in that order.
Moving right along, time wise, the first textbook about how to teach and how to learn more on this subject came out in 1992. This was the year Drexler was invited to Congress to explain what all the talk about this new kind of impressive molecular technology was all about.
In 1993, the first Feynman Prize was announced; in 1994 the first textbook was used in a college course, and so on. The most recent headlines concerning this fascination with all things small at this time, January, 2011 are a few samplings gleaned from Nanotech Now: January 18th note, a note that it takes more than being small to make it nanotechnology. On the 17th, a new interest in gold as a medicine, “gold in nano-medicine may save lives,” came in from London; on January 12th, “Nanobiotechnology group to move headquarters to Durham (Raleigh, NC); on the 11th, a note that NanoCollege in Albany, NY is getting help from NIH (National Institutes of Health.)
Well, it looks as if nanotechnology is here to stay. And by the looks of things, everyone else seems to be in the copying mood. Computers that resemble cell phones and everything small is making it big. Small is taking over in a big way. In a few years, one wonders what kind of eyeglasses will be needed to see all the small gadgets that will then be the rage. But as that news item stated, everything small is not nanotechnology. Nano technology is molecular biology, scientific processing of what most can only imagine, and much more yet unheard of. But try to tell that to trendsetters and to teenagers. Only the elderly who like their lettering big and readable and their computer screens large, are listening. They have no need to see it.