Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Driving under the influence of Feynman

One of my dirty little secrets is that I listen to audiobooks from audible.com (My commute from suburban Detroit to Ann Arbor keeps me in my car about two hours a day). This morning, I "read" (OK, had read to me), Richard Feynman's "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out." (


I'm a caffeine addict, but Feynman's words had, as the nanofather himself would say, a "kick" all its own. Here are a couple of quotes that stayed inside my brain:
    "It is not necessary to understand the way birds flap their wings and how the feathers are designed in order to make a flying machine. It is not necessary to understand the lever system in the legs of a cheetah — an animal that runs fast — in order to make an automobile with wheels that goes very fast. It is therefore not necessary to imitate the behavior of Nature in detail in order to engineer a device which can in many respects surpass nature's abilities."
The quote had me rushing to my notes when I got to the office this morning. It reminded me very much of something one of Feynman's successors (in fact, a winner of the 2003 Foresight Institute Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology), told me during an interview last fall. Carlo Montemagno of the University of California, Los Angeles, won the prize in experimental nanotechnology. He's making hybrid devices, or "taking components you would find in living systems and import them into engineered systems." I asked him whether that is what they're talking about when I hear the term "biomimetics." He responded that he's working on a different level than, say, an engineer who is creating "a robot that moves its fin like a fish, or a flying object that flies by flapping like a bird."
    "The work that I do is a little more basic than that in the sense that I'm looking at trying to make materials and devices in terms of sensors and actuators that incorporate the same sort of molecular, biological complexity and structures that enable these to behave almost exactly like a living system. So, it's a little bit different. I'm at a smaller scale. So, I'm looking at making membranes that convert energy from one form to another, or filter chemicals or pump molecules just like a living membrane would do."
Montemagno's "end-game" is to make devices that have "embedded intelligence," or whose "functionality is greater than the individual pieces." And before I bore the business-minded among you, he's not doing this merely for the pleasure of finding things out. He said he's about two years away from commercialization. The first application? Water filtration. Remember those two words, by the way. They will make the headlines this year as a number of nanotech research and business plans grow ready for prime time.

And speaking of the news, let me leave you with one more Feynman quote from the book I've been listening to:
    "To decide upon the answer is not scientific. In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar. Ajar only. We are only at the beginning of the development of the human race, of the development of the human mind, of intelligent life. We have years and years in the future.

    It's our responsibility not to give the answer today as to what it is all about, to drive everybody down in that direction and to say, 'This is the solution to it all,' because we will be chained, then, to the limits of our present imagination. We will only be able to do those things that we think today are the things to do. Whereas, if we leave always some room for doubt, some room for discussion and proceed in a way analogous to the sciences, then this difficulty will not arise.

    I believe, therefore, that although it is not the case today, that there may someday come a time, I should hope, when it will be fully appreciated that the power of government should be limited, that governments ought not to be empowered to decide the validity of scientific theories, that this is a ridiculous thing for them to try to do, that they are not to decide the various descriptions of history or of economic theory or of philosophy. Only in this way can the real possibilities of the future human race be ultimately developed."
carloUPDATE: Here's a link to more on Carlo Montemagno, which includes a short video of the nanotech researcher explaining "biobots." At right is a picture I took (all rights reserved, etc., etc.) of Montemagno giving his Foresight Institute Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology acceptance speech at a conference last October.


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