The lecture that Richard Feynman gave at Caltech on 29 December 1959, to the Annual Meeting of the American Geophysical Society, seems with hindsight to reflect a remarkably lucid and profound view of the future expressed with admirable simplicity.
The central theme is the opening up of a new field of scientific investigation that Feynman foresaw as likely to produce enormous but unpredictable results, just as had happened with low temperatures and high pressures. It shows evidence of what John Wheeler thought to be a rare quality among theoretical physicists with strong mathematical skills: an awareness of the physical world. Feynman mentions most of the routes taken today in developing micro and nanotechnologies as offering the possibility of the pleasure of discovery. The realism of his predictions is heightened because his vision that computers would be miniaturized and become vastly more powerful has now for the most part actually occurred; in a fascinating exposition, his discussion covers both the issues arising from the mastery of these new tools and the ways that technical know-how might be developed in order to acquire them. The end of the story, which he saw as far in the future because he made the analogy between the capacities of computers and the human brain, has indeed not yet been reached. Forty years ahead of his time he saw the shift towards manipulating individual atoms and to dimensions dominated by the behaviour of quanta (topics that did not frighten him) as leading to what has become one of the major avenues of contemporary research: the nanotechnologies.
Feynman's supremely intelligent and highly imaginative approach is nevertheless subjected to the constraint that he often referred to himself: respect for the forces of nature and consistency with what we know of them. The intellectual argument he engages in here obeys the rule of inventiveness constrained by the laws of physics: "I am not setting about inventing antigravity. I am telling you what could be done if the laws are as we think they are; we do not do it simply because we have not yet set about it."
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