Monday, September 10, 2012

"There's plenty of room at the bottom"

Richard Feynman used this term in a lecture back in 1959, when he challenged the physics and engineering community to get going on the field of nanotechnology. There's a certain irony in the talk, as Feynman himself - and everyone in the room - was a product of a well-tested-and-proven four-billion-year-old version of nanotech we call biology.

Some twenty-seven years later, Eric Drexler again lead the cheer for nanotechnology in a book called "Engines of Creation". How much the field had advanced - and it had, at least, say, in the realm of miniaturized electronics upon silicon substrates - since Feynman's talk was considerable, but still not nearly enough. Many of Drexler's predictions are not even close to coming to pass. Apparently, what Nature hath wrought through dumb luck is a little bit harder than imagined.

In any case, what is interesting about Feynman's lecture is the opening line where he references the quest for the seemingly unlimited limits of cold:
"I imagine experimental physicists must often look with envy at men like Kamerlingh Onnes, who discovered a field like low temperature, which seems to be bottomless and in which one can go down and down".
Soon, this will all be on a chip
Of course, Feynman exaggerated. We know there is such a thing as Absolute Zero, a limit that can never be reached, but the asymptotic approach is indeed bottomless. And the closer you get to absolute zero, the more interesting things get. I hate to bore people with this, but the more I read and absorb upon the subject of ultra-low temperature physics, the more my gut tells me there is something absolutely unexpected and technologically disruptive to be found there. There will be some type of remarkable breakthrough in our near future, perhaps not equivalent to nuclear energy or the commodification of information, but certainly up there with air conditioning or the Internet. What it is, I cannot say. Maybe something to do with the words "quantum". Something to do with atom chips, and matter lasers, and Bose-Einstein condensates, and complex optics, and the protean shapes of photons, and perhaps even sub-atomic manipulations.

Or perhaps it will be a change of worldview more than anything else, something along the lines of the resurgence of curiosity and inquiry that occurred back in the 17th century (something which had been generally lacking in Western society for nearly 2,000 years).

Take, for example, the recent work at the Vienna University of Technology (and is there something in the water at Vienna?), which reveals a very interesting intermediate state between chaos and order.

Studies of matter at ultra-low temperatures shows that the process towards thermal equilibrium is much more complex than thought. It appears there is a regime of stable dis-equilibrium that can occur in between. Indeed, couple this with studies of the networking of networks, and it looks as if the concepts of chaos and order need to be tossed out completely. Even the idea of classical equilibrium may be nothing more than a concept - something that does not actually occur in the real world. If so, it may change how we thing about things, from climate change to markets. It may be that there is no such thing as a status quo, and thus, attempting to maintain it may be a fool's errand.

Well, nothing new there, really. Expect the unexpected and all that. But still, I got a weird feeling going on from all this shit...

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