Penicillium Mold Gets Girl

I’m sorry I won’t be there. What interests me the most about the MEMS and Sensors Summit September 10th in Santa Clara (at the at the Marriot Hotel in Santa Clara, California, actually, just in case it’s still September 10th and you happen to be across the street), is that they billed it as “one-day interactive summit to discuss the Future of MEMS and Sensors.” Okay, so they’ll probably stick to reality, but it is the “Future” part that excites me.

In 1959 I also missed Richard Feynman’s famous lecture, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” (Not that I would have understood much of it, but I’d have gotten a little—maybe). What Feynman did was explore technologies that could not even exist yet. That is what I’m hoping will happen in Santa Clara.

According to the press release, “The summit will feature more than 25 distinguished panelists and speakers,” who will include “visionaries” describing “where the next-generation sensors are creating opportunities to shape the future of electronics.” Me, I get nose bleeds just thinking about going that high (or that small).

Okay, MEMS are everywhere every day. But that’s NOW—which I don’t care about. I am not even interested in what will (ho-hum) happen tomorrow or next year. They said FUTURE, didn’t they? They said VISIONARIES, didn’t they?

Even Feynman went a little too small potatoes. If I recall correctly, the first of his two proposed prizes was snapped up the next year by someone using existing technology (no mean feat of course—even Feynman didn’t think it could be done yet). And the other followed soon after. But it’s hard to settle for the moon when you want to travel the galaxy.

Our present MEMS achievements became practical when semiconductor fabrication technologies could be directly applied. In other words we got to use them like a rubber meter stick, since new tiny technologies within that field are continually being tried and raced against the “doing what we’ve got only better” folks.

I want more. I want FUTURE!

MEMS is the technology of small devices. Once we use that simple definition, we can sneak into systems (NEMS) and nanotechnology. I’m told by the killjoys around me that I should keep MEMS distinct from the hypothetical vision of molecular nanotechnology or molecular electronics. But they can’t make me—it’s my blog! Whatever you want to call them (M/N/PEMS?), there will usually be a processing-like element and things (like sensors—or little tiny arms holding hammers) to interact with the world around it. (Carve them out of a molecule for all I care, grow them like dandelions, or gene splice Penicillium mold!)

Keep in mind that as you get smaller and smaller, classic physics gets iffy. Surface effects start to overrule mass and inertia. Woo-woo! A really visionary exploration of THE FUTURE would be like reading hard science Sci-Fi, only better. (Physicist meets girl. Physicist loses girl. Penicillium mold gets girl.)

Besides, NEMS are the next step anyway, and separating them too rigidly just hobbles the imagination. The need is not to see looming (in a nano sense) quantum effects as problems that need to be solved, but as new frontiers waiting to be explored and exploited.

So that is what I hope for in Santa Clara—the dramatically unexpected. I think we too easily think small (in a bad way) and assume the next rock we leap for will be like the one we just left. In effect, we (science and engineering are both practiced by humans, with all the baggage of emotion and self-deception we can carry) tend to flimflam ourselves and settle for less.

To touch again Feynman’s touchy touchstone, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool… After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.” And also “… nature cannot be fooled.”

Here’s to honesty—and courage—and real tomorrows.

2 Responses to “Penicillium Mold Gets Girl”

  • Lyn Hibbard says:

    Asking any of us from corporate science and development to have Feynman-esque originality is expecting a lot! On the other hand, this is a wonderful time to be working in science and engineering given the almost daily advances in every technology direction.

  • Koby says:

    And being too innovative gets one smacked across the knuckles with a metal meter stick. Feynman just smacked first and harder.

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