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Richard Feynman (pronounced fine-man) was one of the most influential physicists in America during the 20th century. Academically, his works were of great importance to the field of quantum electrodynamics. In addition, Feynman was an outspoken proponent of science and technology, and he successfully reached out to the common citizen through a variety of books and speeches. He was an eccentric man known for off-the-cuff remarks about sex, science, and other saucy topics.
While most people know him for his Feynman Lectures on Physics series, nanotechnology researchers inevitably point out his pioneering lecture titled 'There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom'. The talk was given in 1959, and was the first recorded mention of technologies working at the nanometer scale.
Throughout the talk, Feynman consistently brought up ideas that have been proven today. His entire focus was on developing our ability to directly manipulate atoms. From there, he saw a broad range of powerful new techniques that could open an entirely new field of research for the 21st century. He couldn't have been more right!
Right off the bat, Feynman described the possibility of denser computer circuitry, and powerful new microscopes that could look beyond the range of electron microscopes. Today, scientists like Charles Lieber, Peidong Yang, and James Heath all use those predicted microscopes (like STMs and AFMs) to create nanowire or molecular circuitry that are almost 100 times smaller than existing microchip technology.
He correctly pinned down the increasing importance of surface phenomena and short-range forces over the traditional bulk forces of our classical world.
Though he did not specifically outline a path to actually creating nanotechnology applications, his talk is considered the foundation of modern nanotechnology from the theoretical side.
It would take another 25 years before Eric Drexler would create a roadmap for our emerging field of nanotechnology.