“They work like human hands: not with a single active lever or twenty different tools, but with components arranged and with actions like human hands.” This was not a scientific paper but a science fiction short story by Robert Heinlein (author of, most famously “Starship Troopers” and introducer of the pod-people.) And yet his idea of tiny robots able to operate inside the human body on a cellular level became the foundation for a new field of science. Research historically concerned mostly the macro level – the earth, the stars and planets – but Caltech Physicist and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman aimed to change that.
On this day, December 29, in 1959, Richard Feynman gave his famous talk at a Caltch meeting of the American Physical Society, proposing microscopic, nano-scale, machines. Feynman’s presentation launched the field of nanotechnology.
Feynman’s suggestions closely paralleled Heinlein’s Waldo short story: a cascading series of ever-smaller robots would build each other until the scale got small enough to work on arranging and rearranging atoms. Feynman laid out a kind of roadmap for the eventual realization of his dream, and although we are still very far from large-scale atom or human cell manipulation, some isolated successes have been achieved, further proving today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s science fact.