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
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
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