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Driving under the influence of Feynman

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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
of the University of California, Los Angeles, won the
prize in experimental nanotechnology. He’s making hybrid devices, or
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.”

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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About HLovy

  • Feyman wasn’t just a genius. He was also very entertaining. I love his books. Thanks for reminding me.

  • duane

    I would restate that, and say that Feynman was not just merely entertaining, he was a genius, in the true sense of the word.

  • plus, he was somehow able to convey complex physics topics so that even physics morons (and i’m including myself in that list) can get something out of it.

  • Feynman is one of my role models for going your own way without regard to the general nitwittery of the population. He achieved that state of transcendence. I’m still just striving.

    While we are talking certifiable genuises, I have an entry about polymath musician, physicist and writer Richard Powers up here at Blogcritics, too. He is another one of those people who awe me with their ability.

  • Ga-ne-sha

    Regarding Feynman, “He achieved that state of transcendence. I’m still just striving.” Mac Diva

    How can you read Feynman, then make such a rediculous post about the “average Indian”? Feynman would turn green.
    Actually, you can go to a “state of transcendence” in an instant. The problem will then be in staying there. Good Luck to us all.

  • Eric Olsen

    excellent job Howard, thanks!

  • Shark

    I would also recommend “TUVA OR BUST”, an entertaining and informative book that touches on the inquisitive, obsessional nature of Feynmann’s brilliance.

    Very fun read.

    (BTW: It has nothing to do with Physics)

  • The W. Post has a great review of a re-release of Feynman’s books. Details here.