Feynman's discoveries?

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Hi

Did Feynman's discoveries have a big impact on technology? If it did, in what way? I'm trying to learn about what he has accomplished but it’s not so easy with my limited knowledge of physics. I just know he won a Nobel Prize and was considered the greatest physicist of his time.I want to know why.

There should be a book where they explain every great physicist achievements and discoveries to educate the public. It should be written with a simple and concrete language aimed for the layman. It's a shame that majority of people could tell you more about Kardashian than Feynman or other important scientists.

[Mentor's note: Moved from the Quantum Physics forum]
 
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  • #2
Quantum Defect
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Hi

Did Feynman's discoveries have a big impact on technology? If it did, in what way? I'm trying to learn about what he has accomplished but it’s not so easy with my limited knowledge of physics. I just know he won a Nobel Prize and was considered the greatest physicist of his time.I want to know why.

There should be a book where they explain every great physicist achievements and discoveries to educate the public. It should be written with a simple and concrete language aimed for the layman. It's a shame that majority of people could tell you more about Kardashian than Feynman or other important scientists.
The Nobel lectures are good points to start to learn something about the work that people have done, for the small number who have own the Nobel Prize:

http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1965/feynman-lecture.html

Many journals will publish commemorative issues to celebrate the life and work of the more illustrious members of their field. Often these journals will have an autobiographical essay that is interesting to read as well as a brief essay that outlines the contributions of the honoree.

I am not sure of what specific techology has been enabled by Feynman's work in QCD, but others on the Forum might know of a specific widget or gizmo that owes its existence to this work. I do know that many workers in nanoscience were inspired by his prophetic words in a talk that he gave in the 80s, prior to the boom in nano-everything -- I think if you Google "Feynman" and "lots of room at the bottom" you will find the speech.
 
  • #3
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The Nobel lectures are good points to start to learn something about the work that people have done, for the small number who have own the Nobel Prize:

http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1965/feynman-lecture.html

Many journals will publish commemorative issues to celebrate the life and work of the more illustrious members of their field. Often these journals will have an autobiographical essay that is interesting to read as well as a brief essay that outlines the contributions of the honoree.

I am not sure of what specific techology has been enabled by Feynman's work in QCD, but others on the Forum might know of a specific widget or gizmo that owes its existence to this work. I do know that many workers in nanoscience were inspired by his prophetic words in a talk that he gave in the 80s, prior to the boom in nano-everything -- I think if you Google "Feynman" and "lots of room at the bottom" you will find the speech.

Thanks for the link but there is no way that I can understand that. Enormous amount of text and I don’t get any of it. Is it really impossible to explain stuff for the layman in a short, simple, concrete way? I guess it's not possible since I haven’t found it anywhere and the subject is so advanced, especially his field.

I do hope someone can tell me if some of his discoveries helped create new technology at that time. To me it’s all abstract until I can see that something concrete has come out of his work, for an example helped create a new processor or something else.
 
  • #4
Quantum Defect
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Thanks for the link but there is no way that I can understand that. Enormous amount of text and I don’t get any of it. Is it really impossible to explain stuff for the layman in a short, simple, concrete way? I guess it's not possible since I haven’t found it anywhere and the subject is so advanced, especially his field.

I do hope someone can tell me if some of his discoveries helped create new technology at that time. To me it’s all abstract until I can see that something concrete has come out of his work, for an example helped create a new processor or something else.
The PR problem with basic research is that it often takes a very long time for a basic science result to lead to any product. People often quote the example of relativity being used in GPS as one example -- close to 100 years for that development!

I very much like the (probably fictional) quip of Michael Faraday when Queen Victoria asked him: "Mr. Faraday, what use is Electricity?" To which he is supposed to have replied: "Your Majesty, what use is a baby?" I.e. Sometimes it takes a while for the utility of something to become apparent.
 
  • #5
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He made fundamental discoveries in QED (they were primarily calculation leading to much more efficient ways of calculating things in the theory - other physicists such as Schwinger were equally involved with the basics of the theory and they all got Nobel prizes) and its practical applications have been discussed before:
https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/does-qed-have-any-real-world-applications.559356/

He also invented the path integral approach to QM that is widely used in solid state physics that lead to the transistor which is a very important technological discovery - but it's not required to understand it - merely useful.

Thanks
Bill
 
  • #6
vanhees71
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I think what made Feynman so great was not only his very intuitive way to do theoretical physics but also the broadness of topics he covered, reaching from the modern foundation of quantum field theory (renormalization of QED is the work he got his Nobel for), the phenomenology of elementary particle physics (on both the weak and strong interactions; he's the inventor of the parton model!) to condensed-matter physics (liquid helium) and a lot of other stuff. Last but not least, I think it's fair to say that he was the greatest physics teacher (in the best sense of the word) since Sommerfeld.

Another outstanding achievement is his development of calculational tools like the path-integral (as mentioned by bhobba above) and (very importantly) Feynman diagrams, whose invention led not only to the possibility to perform complicated QFT calculations in perturbation theory but also to the development of modern renormalization theory, culminating in the formal theory (Bogoliubov, Parasiuk, Hepp, Zimmermann) and the proof of the renormalizability of non-abelian gauge theories, upon which the most successful theory ever is based, the standard model of elementary particle physics ('t Hooft, Veltman). All this is best formulated and practiced in terms of Feynman diagrams.

Concerning the "applicability" of his research, one should keep in mind that the development of technological applications takes some time. The endeavor of fundamental research also doesn't only lead to direct applications of its findings but in doing research on the forefront of knowledge triggers technological developments itself. An experimental colleague of mine, e.g., who is involved in research on heavy ions and who's among other things developing ideas for detectors to measure heavy-flavor mesons got a research grant about the application of the detector technology he uses in medicine.

Of course, very fundamental questions of the past, which were solved in basic research led finally to all the technological convenience we have today. A little mathematical glitch in the then known theory of electromagnetism lead Maxwell to the introduction of an innocently looking term (the socalled "displacement current") into the equations of motion of the electromagnetic field (which was an idea by the experimentalist Faraday around the same time). This little term literally lead to a revolution in both pure science, because it predicted electromagnetic waves and lead to the technological development to create them and finally to wireless communication, radio, etc.

But this was not the end of the story but the beginning of what's now called "modern physics". The electromagnetic theory enabled physicists and engineers to develop a lot of technology that finally lead to the discovery of the inner structure of matter (beginning with the discovery of the electron by J.J. Thomson, atomic nuclei, the strucure of atoms, radioactivity, X rays,...). This opened a can of worms in terms of the failure of what's now called "classical physics". Around 1900 many physicists thought the story is over: Classical physics, including mechanics, electromagnetics, and thermodynamics are the "theory of everything". There were "little clouds", particularly in thermodynamics, where the classical models didn't work, but one believed that this is solved easily. Now we know that was a completely wrong expectation, and quantum theory was needed to resolve these problems. Similarly the incompatibility of Maxwell's electrodynamics with the Galilean space-time structure and the lack of any indications for the implied existence of a preferred frame of reference lead to the discovery of special and finally general relativity.

Quantum theory lead to an immense progress also in technological applications. The entire semiconductor industry, including transistors and ICs, upon which our modern computer technology is based (leading to the miracle that I can write this little posting and spread it all over the world with nearly the speed of light). Another pillar of computer technology is of course quite formal mathematics (Boolean algebra, algorithms, and all that).

The idea of many politicians and economists that today's basic research is only justified when it brings some applications making money in some years is flawed and dangerous. Giving up fundamental reserach on such grounds would lead to a freezing of the technological standard at best. It could be even worse: If you don't foster fundamental research, one day you'll lack all the "nerds" needed to even keep the technological standard as it is now, let alone to discover new things leading to new inventions, etc.!
 
  • #7
ZapperZ
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Hi

Did Feynman's discoveries have a big impact on technology? If it did, in what way? I'm trying to learn about what he has accomplished but it’s not so easy with my limited knowledge of physics. I just know he won a Nobel Prize and was considered the greatest physicist of his time.I want to know why.

There should be a book where they explain every great physicist achievements and discoveries to educate the public. It should be written with a simple and concrete language aimed for the layman. It's a shame that majority of people could tell you more about Kardashian than Feynman or other important scientists.

[Mentor's note: Moved from the Quantum Physics forum]
Why can't you pick up and read a biography of Feynman?

Zz.
 
  • #8
epenguin
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Offhand I remember one biog. called 'Genius' and another called 'Quantum Man'.
 
  • #9
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Why can't you pick up and read a biography of Feynman?

Zz.

So basically what you are saying is that I shouldn’t ask questions because I can find the answers in books...Tell me what the point of this forum is then?
If I've read something I don’t understand and if I shouldn’t turn to a forum, what should I do Mr. Science Advisor?

I think I pointed out clearly that I've read about Feynman but I didn’t understand what he has accomplished or in what way his discoveries where useful to us. I’m wiser now since I've received some great answers and I'm thankful for that.
 
  • #10
ZapperZ
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So basically what you are saying is that I shouldn’t ask questions because I can find the answers in books...Tell me what the point of this forum is then?
If I've read something I don’t understand and if I shouldn’t turn to a forum, what should I do Mr. Science Advisor?

I think I pointed out clearly that I've read about Feynman but I didn’t understand what he has accomplished or in what way his discoveries where useful to us. I’m wiser now since I've received some great answers and I'm thankful for that.
What exactly did you read that you didn't understand? You never mentioned about that. It is very vague on the kind and level of efforts that you have put in. Are you saying that you have read these biographies and don't have the answers that you are looking for?

This forum works best when there is a specific and narrow issues to tackle, rather than asking for very general and vague question.

Zz.
 
  • #11
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What exactly did you read that you didn't understand? You never mentioned about that. It is very vague on the kind and level of efforts that you have put in. Are you saying that you have read these biographies and don't have the answers that you are looking for?

This forum works best when there is a specific and narrow issues to tackle, rather than asking for very general and vague question.

Zz.

Ok then I'll try to be more precise next time.

Sorry for off topic but I have a question I hope you can answer. If I have a clip about something claiming to be scientific could I make a thread in this part of the forum and ask if there's any truth to it? I'm watching something at the moment: and there’s a man saying over and over again "Everything is sound" (5:00 and forward) It bothers me in some way, I don’t know if he’s right or wrong but I sense bullshit. That aside I find those shapes remarkable and beautiful. Wonder if there’s any science behind them, like if you could predict / calculate what pattern would appear at different frequencies.
 
  • #12
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I think what made Feynman so great was not only his very intuitive way to do theoretical physics but also the broadness of topics he covered, reaching from the modern foundation of quantum field theory (renormalization of QED is the work he got his Nobel for), the phenomenology of elementary particle physics (on both the weak and strong interactions; he's the inventor of the parton model!) to condensed-matter physics (liquid helium) and a lot of other stuff. Last but not least, I think it's fair to say that he was the greatest physics teacher (in the best sense of the word) since Sommerfeld.

Another outstanding achievement is his development of calculational tools like the path-integral (as mentioned by bhobba above) and (very importantly) Feynman diagrams, whose invention led not only to the possibility to perform complicated QFT calculations in perturbation theory but also to the development of modern renormalization theory, culminating in the formal theory (Bogoliubov, Parasiuk, Hepp, Zimmermann) and the proof of the renormalizability of non-abelian gauge theories, upon which the most successful theory ever is based, the standard model of elementary particle physics ('t Hooft, Veltman). All this is best formulated and practiced in terms of Feynman diagrams.

Concerning the "applicability" of his research, one should keep in mind that the development of technological applications takes some time. The endeavor of fundamental research also doesn't only lead to direct applications of its findings but in doing research on the forefront of knowledge triggers technological developments itself. An experimental colleague of mine, e.g., who is involved in research on heavy ions and who's among other things developing ideas for detectors to measure heavy-flavor mesons got a research grant about the application of the detector technology he uses in medicine.

Of course, very fundamental questions of the past, which were solved in basic research led finally to all the technological convenience we have today. A little mathematical glitch in the then known theory of electromagnetism lead Maxwell to the introduction of an innocently looking term (the socalled "displacement current") into the equations of motion of the electromagnetic field (which was an idea by the experimentalist Faraday around the same time). This little term literally lead to a revolution in both pure science, because it predicted electromagnetic waves and lead to the technological development to create them and finally to wireless communication, radio, etc.

But this was not the end of the story but the beginning of what's now called "modern physics". The electromagnetic theory enabled physicists and engineers to develop a lot of technology that finally lead to the discovery of the inner structure of matter (beginning with the discovery of the electron by J.J. Thomson, atomic nuclei, the strucure of atoms, radioactivity, X rays,...). This opened a can of worms in terms of the failure of what's now called "classical physics". Around 1900 many physicists thought the story is over: Classical physics, including mechanics, electromagnetics, and thermodynamics are the "theory of everything". There were "little clouds", particularly in thermodynamics, where the classical models didn't work, but one believed that this is solved easily. Now we know that was a completely wrong expectation, and quantum theory was needed to resolve these problems. Similarly the incompatibility of Maxwell's electrodynamics with the Galilean space-time structure and the lack of any indications for the implied existence of a preferred frame of reference lead to the discovery of special and finally general relativity.

Quantum theory lead to an immense progress also in technological applications. The entire semiconductor industry, including transistors and ICs, upon which our modern computer technology is based (leading to the miracle that I can write this little posting and spread it all over the world with nearly the speed of light). Another pillar of computer technology is of course quite formal mathematics (Boolean algebra, algorithms, and all that).

The idea of many politicians and economists that today's basic research is only justified when it brings some applications making money in some years is flawed and dangerous. Giving up fundamental reserach on such grounds would lead to a freezing of the technological standard at best. It could be even worse: If you don't foster fundamental research, one day you'll lack all the "nerds" needed to even keep the technological standard as it is now, let alone to discover new things leading to new inventions, etc.!
Thanks for taking your time making that great post! So much information, I'll have to read it a couple of times to let it sink in :)

What you said in the end is something I havent thought of at all, but it's so true..
 
  • #13
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sacred knowledge of vibration.
Do you really need anything more than that to sense horse manure?
 
  • #14
ZapperZ
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Ok then I'll try to be more precise next time.

Sorry for off topic but I have a question I hope you can answer. If I have a clip about something claiming to be scientific could I make a thread in this part of the forum and ask if there's any truth to it? I'm watching something at the moment: and there’s a man saying over and over again "Everything is sound" (5:00 and forward) It bothers me in some way, I don’t know if he’s right or wrong but I sense bullshit. That aside I find those shapes remarkable and beautiful. Wonder if there’s any science behind them, like if you could predict / calculate what pattern would appear at different frequencies.
Please read the forum rules first and pay attention to the type of discussion and sources that are allowed here. Not everything and anything that you can find are admissible.

Zz.
 
  • #15
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Please read the forum rules first and pay attention to the type of discussion and sources that are allowed here. Not everything and anything that you can find are admissible.

Zz.
Will do.
 
  • #16
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Cyrano: I am a sucker when it comes to Wikipedia so my suggestion would be to look him up there.
 
  • #17
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Most technologies you are familiar with result from the work of hundreds of people, some of them closer to the spot light. Although baseball runs on gravity, it would be somewhat of a stretch to credit Newton for its existence. Newton merely explained very well the ball's trajectory.
 
  • #18
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Hi

Did Feynman's discoveries have a big impact on technology? If it did, in what way?
This is a pretty interesting article. http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/Issues/2009/January/FeynmansFancy.asp

Richard Feynman's famous talk on atom-by-atom assembly is often credited with kick-starting nanotechnology...Fifty years ago, the near-legendary physicist Richard Feynman of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) gave a talk called There's plenty of room at the bottom to the American Physical Society's West Coast section. He outlined a vision of what would later be called nanotechnology, imagining 'that we could arrange atoms one by one, just as we want them'. The rest is history.

But what sort of history? Did Feynman's talk, published the following year in Caltech's house magazine Engineering and science, really kick-start nanotechnology, or is that just a convenient fiction to link this emerging field to a colourful visionary?...

...Feynman's talk didn't in any sense start nanotechnology. It didn't really stimulate any new research at all, although the miniaturisation challenges he set sparked some neat feats of engineering. Indeed, some of Feynman's contemporaries even wondered if his intent was purely comic (which would have been very much in character). Very little of the later, foundational work in nanotech drew on Feynman's vision, and most was conducted in complete ignorance of it....

...While it might be wise to stop pretending that his address to the APS was the 'birth of nanotechnology,' that needn't prevent us from relishing the spectacle of a genius giving free rein to his imagination. It was, according to George Whitesides of Harvard University, US, 'yet more validation, if any were needed, of Feynman's perceptiveness and openness to new ideas'...

...one of the most significant aspects of Feynman's text is its focus on information. It was already becoming clear in 1959, a year after the invention of the integrated circuit, that miniaturisation would be important in computer technology. 'Work on the transistor had been miniaturising and miniaturising since its invention in 1947,' says chemist Mark Ratner, also at Northwestern and author of Nanotechnology . 'Whether the physics community thought in those terms isn't so clear, but Feynman was certainly aware of what the engineers' thoughts were.' All the same, this was six years before Gordon Moore of Intel coined his renowned 'law' describing the shrinking of computer circuit elements, and there was none of the now commonplace presumption that data storage and processing would have to happen at an ever-decreasing scale. Yet Feynman proclaimed that, with a capacity for atom-craft, 'all of the information that man has carefully accumulated in all the books in the world can be written . in a cube of material one two-hundredth of an inch wide.'

What's more, he recognised how much of this facility for manipulating matter and storing information at the nanoscale was already apparent in biological systems. In DNA, he said, 'approximately 50 atoms are used for one bit of information about the cell'. And biology 'is not simply writing information; it is doing something about it'. Today, molecular and cell biology are frequently cited not only as an 'existence proof' that nanotechnology is possible but as a rich store of ideas for how it might be achieved. But in 1959, says Dekker, 'people simply were not thinking about biological structures in terms of machines'. That Feynman did so only six years after the discovery of the information-encoding structure of DNA was remarkable. 'If I look at the two biggest technological revolutions in the past half century, I would mention information technology and the molecular biology revolution,' says Dekker. 'Feynman mentioned both.'...

...Where Feynman scores less strongly is on the role of chemistry in nanoscale engineering. 'He spent a lot of time thinking about computation and computers, but not much time thinking about molecules and the way they organise space and matter,' says Ratner. 'My guess is that if you presented him with a five-coordinate carbon atom, it wouldn't have bothered him any more than a four-coordinate carbon atom would have. The soft-matter world was not his forte.'

Most crucially, he seems not to have appreciated (in fairness, neither did anyone else at the time) that nature's prowess in nanotechnology relies heavily on the propensity of chemical systems to self-assemble...

Where Feynman scores less strongly is on the role of chemistry in nanoscale engineering. 'He spent a lot of time thinking about computation and computers, but not much time thinking about molecules and the way they organise space and matter,' says Ratner. 'My guess is that if you presented him with a five-coordinate carbon atom, it wouldn't have bothered him any more than a four-coordinate carbon atom would have. The soft-matter world was not his forte.'...

...For all its strengths and weaknesses, did anyone actually listen to Feynman's ideas? 'Feynman was Feynman,' says Ratner, 'and a lot of people would listen to him who might not be willing to listen to people of lesser reputation, in part because he put things so beautifully.' Yet if they listened, it's not clear that they were inspired to act. In a myth-busting article of 2005 published, cheekily, also in Engineering and science , anthropologist Chris Toumey of the University of South Carolina dissected the real 'influence' of Feynman's talk. How many citations did Plenty of room generate, Toumey asked? Until 1980, you could count them on your fingers: three in the 1960s, four in the 1970s. And one of these, a survey of advances in information technology in 1969, called Feynman's speculations about storing information in single atoms 'completely vacuous as far as the real world is concerned'.

Even if that last remark chalks up a point for Feynman, the evidence therefore suggests that his ideas were at first almost totally ignored. Then, from around 1980 until 2002, the growth in citations increased exponentially. What made the difference?

Two things, Toumey suspects. One was that the science caught up. The STM and its ilk were invented during the early 1980s by Gerd Binnig of IBM's research laboratories in Zürich and his collaborators, Heinrich Rohrer and Christoph Gerber at IBM and Calvin Quate at Stanford University in California. Eigler says that 'Feynman's work would be on a dusty shelf without Binnig. It was Binnig who blew life into nano by creating the machine that fired our imaginations'.

Yet the inventors of these devices didn't even know what Feynman had said. 'Binnig and I neither heard of Feynman's paper until scanning tunnelling microscopy was widely accepted in the scientific community . nor did any of our papers ever refer to it,' says Rohrer. Quate denies prior knowledge of it, and Binnig told Toumey that even then he hadn't read it.

The other reason for the rising fame of Feynman's talk was more controversial. In 1981 engineer K Eric Drexler published a paper entitled Molecular engineering: an approach to the development of general capabilities for molecular manipulation . It cited Feynman in the very first sentence, and went on to outline a vision of 'microtechnology' at the molecular scale that Drexler later developed in his 1986 book Engines of creation , which became the point of entry to nanotechnology for many lay readers...

...Drexler's blueprint for nanotechnology has been criticised extensively, most famously by an acerbic exchange with the late Richard Smalley of Rice University, a discoverer of nano's poster molecule C60. Much of this criticism centres on Drexler's mechanistic literalism and its apparent neglect of chemical principles, which restrict what is possible by mechanical means but also offer smarter ways of achieving similar goals. That, however, isn't the point here. Even Drexler's critics cannot deny that he was hugely influential to the public visibility of nanotechnology in its early days, boosted by Drexler's founding of the Foresight Institute in Palo Alto, California, to promote the topic generally and Drexler's 'molecular machinery' version of it in particular. And at every juncture, Drexler took the opportunity to promote Feynman's talk as the foundational text of the subject, perhaps because it meshed so well with his own vision.

This may lead some chemists to be sceptical of Feynman's insights. Jim Gimzewski, a specialist in STM nano-manipulation at the University of California at Los Angeles, US, dismisses many of them as 'the basis of Drexler's mechanistic Newtonian models' of nanotech. 'Neither Feynman nor Drexler appreciated the ability of chemical synthesis to respond to the nanotechnological age,' says Fraser Stoddart. 'Both saw it as a given in the same billiard-ball type mode that had met the needs of the dye-stuffs and pharmaceutical industries.'...

...Whether or not the true founders of the science of nanotechnology knew of Feynman's talk at the time, no one who enters this field can be ignorant of it now. What do they make of it? Is it a source of inspiration, a curiosity, or an irrelevance?


'I had read it a long time before first manipulating atoms with the STM,' says Eigler. 'Within weeks of [doing that work], I went back to dig up Feynman's paper. I was more than ever impressed with how prescient Feynman's thought were.'
'I am not so inspired by the talk's content,' says Gimzewski, 'but more by the fact that he did speculate and was not the typical academic. He had character and was a bit crazy.' Whether any of these speculations hit the mark is not really the point, he says. 'He threw a bunch of darts, and some accidentally landed on where the future was going. He carpet-bombed the future.'

Whitesides believes that, for most researchers, an interest in what Feynman says comes post hoc : 'My sense is that most people in nano become excited about it for their own reasons, and then lean on Feynman as part of their justification for their interest. Most scientists require "permission" to work in new areas, and Feynman provided that.' For his own part, Whitesides says that Feynman's talk 'had no influence on what we have done. 'Late on, I have read parts of it, but only parts. It has never seemed that relevant'.

'Feynman had a dream, but he did not come up with a blueprint,' says Stoddart. 'Yet it would have been asking a lot of him to see much beyond what he did see and predict. He did not recognise the power of chemistry to drive nanotechnology in a meaningful way. He did, however, help to stimulate a number of chemists to start thinking about meaningful ways to do bottom-up manufacturing.'

Perhaps in the end the inspiration Feynman offers comes not from what he said, but from the fact that he said it at all. 'In a world in which atoms and molecules and small structures were "not physics" and not fashionable,' says Whitesides, 'Feynman said "Oh yes they are and there is lots to do there!'" That took great imagination, says Ratner. 'Bold speculative visions are wonderful, and imagination is crucial to the development and introduction of new scientific ideas. And imagination was Feynman's great stock in trade.'
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