Supertext: The textbook that changed my life

May 28, 1999

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe that it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact , or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms - little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another . In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied."

As a schoolboy I built a computer. It was only a very simple computer, in which electromagnetic relays served for both memory and central processing elements, and the results were displayed using light bulbs. It could handle three bits, and perform eight basic operations. But it worked. And it won me a prize. At the recommendation of the senior tutor of Queens' College in Cambridge, where I was later to study for my PhD, I chose Volumes One and Two of The Feynman Lectures on Physics (the prize was not big enough to include Volume Three ). The above quotation is taken from the opening lecture. From these lectures I learnt about physics that was not the closed system of the school syllabus, but an open field, in which there was no limit to what you could think about.

Years later, as a newly appointed lecturer in metallurgy and the science of materials at Oxford, I had been developing mechanically scanned microscopes for studying materials with sub-micrometre resolution, when I learned that a new mechanically scanned microscope had been developed in Switzerland that could see atoms. In another famous lecture, "There is plenty of room at the bottom", Feynman speculated that it should be possible to make devices that exploit the minimum sizes that are permitted by the atoms of which they are made, and it may be that some of our research will one day contribute to realising that dream.

Last year I was introduced to a series of lectures that had been edited and published posthumously in 1996 as Feynman Lectures on Computation . The lectures were given in the early 1980s, and although the technology of computing has moved on at a furious pace since then, the lectures are the most lucid expositions of the underlying principles that I have ever encountered.

Over Christmas I lent Feynman Lectures on Computation to my 12-year-old nephew. He devoured them. As well as finding a rather subtle mathematical mistake (not necessarily attributable to Feynman himself), he has since been tackling some of the many exercises that are an integral part of the book. He has already shown me his design for a Turing binary multiplier. Nothing would please me more than to find that this new set of Feynman lectures changes a life of the next generation.

Andrew Briggs is reader in materials, University of Oxford.

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