Here's a slide that we often show in our talks, which includes quotes on atomic-resolution microscopy from Richard Feynman, John von Neumann, and Linus Pauling. The purpose of this web page is to provide references and public access to the little-known (and in some cases unpublished, and provided to us by MIT historian Lily Kay) sources from which these quotations were obtained.
In 1946, Linus Pauling suggested that the structure of biological molecules might be directly observed by microscopy, and seriously proposed to develop such microscopes.The following excerpt is from an unpublished 1946 proposal by Pauling, which was addressed to Warren Weaver of the Rockefeller Foundation.
It is appalling to consider how meager is our information about the composition and structure of proteins. ... Extremely important advances could be achieved if the effective resolving power of the electron microscope could be considerably improved.
A copy of Pauling's proposal was very kindly provided to us by historian Lily Kay. Sadly, Prof. Kay passed away before she could complete her intention of publishing an analysis of it.
Students of the history of technology will find much of interest in Pauling's proposal. For example, the Rockefeller Foundation politely but firmly rejected it! Perhaps the annotated comment "bullshit" on page 13 of Pauling's research plan explains why (some things never change!).
Perhaps some young historian of science would like to finish the job? A scanned copy of all the material we received from Dr. Kay is in this directory.
As a small sample of the Pauling material, here is the
letter that begins the files:
A 1946 letter from John von Neumann to Norbert Wiener summarizes von Neumann's roadmap for future progress in many areas of science, including microscopy, neurophysiology, and even nanotechnology. Yet because von Neumann's letter remained unpublished until 1997, it is little known to the scientific community.
Von Neumann's roadmap is full of interest for quantum microscopists, because it presents the earliest roadmap--known to us at any rate--pointing toward comprehensive molecular microscopy, together with an explicit appreciation of the importance of this goal.
Langmuir asserts that a 2-4 year effort with strong financial backing should break the back of the problem. His idea of an attack is: Very highly precision x-ray analysis, Fourier transformation with very massive fast computing, in combination with various chemical substitution techniques to vary the x-ray pattern. I realize that this is in itself a big order, and that it is still by a factor 1000 off our goal-but it would probably be more than half the difficulty. In addition there is no telling what really advanced electron-microscopic techniques will do. In fact, I suspect that the main possibilities may well lie in that direction. [... The present] 1 nm resolution is inadequate-but not very far from what might be adequate. A resolution that is improved by a factor of 100 might do.
For the scientists of von Neumann's, Wiener's and Langmuir's generation, it is evident that atomic-resolution microscopy was regarded as a well-posed, urgent-and solvable-scientific challenge.
It would be very interesting to know whether John von Neumann was one of the reviewers of Pauling's proposal. Certainly von Neumann's letter to Norbert Weiner, written later in 1946, (below) shows remarkable familiarity with this material.
Interestingly, von Neumann's 1946 letter anticipates many aspects of Richard Feynman's celebrated 1959 lecture There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom.
What good would it be to see individual atoms distinctly?
We have friends in other fields---in biology, for instance. We physicists often look at them and say, "You know the reason you fellows are making so little progress?" (Actually I don't know any field where they are making more rapid progress than they are in biology today.) "You should use more mathematics, like we do."
They could answer us---but they're polite, so I'll answer for them: "What you should do in order for us to make more rapid progress is to make the electron microscope 100 times better."
What are the most central and fundamental problems of biology today? They are questions like: What is the sequence of bases in the DNA? What happens when you have a mutation? How is the base order in the DNA connected to the order of amino acids in the protein? What is the structure of the RNA; is it single-chain or double-chain, and how is it related in its order of bases to the DNA? What is the organization of the microsomes? How are proteins synthesized? Where does the RNA go? How does it sit? Where do the proteins sit? Where do the amino acids go in? In photosynthesis, where is the chlorophyll; how is it arranged; where are the carotenoids involved in this thing? What is the system of the conversion of light into chemical energy?
It is very easy to answer many of these fundamental biological questions; you just look at the thing! You will see the order of bases in the chain; you will see the structure of the microsome. Unfortunately, the present microscope sees at a scale which is just a bit too crude. Make the microscope one hundred times more powerful, and many problems of biology would be made very much easier. I exaggerate, of course, but the biologists would surely be very thankful to you---and they would prefer that to the criticism that they should use more mathematics.
For some reason, the above passage is among the least-quoted of Feynman's works. For example, it is not mentioned in Mehra's otherwise comprehensive Feynman biography. This may be because all the other challenges in Feynman's lecture (the small motor, the nanoscale writing) were swiftly met; atomic-resolution microscopy is the only one that remains.
Today, fifty years later, many of the dreams of Feynman's, Pauling's, and von Neumann's generation of scientists have come true: for example, the success of the Standard Model in physics, the decoding of the human genome, the advent of the computer, and space travel, to name four. Only the dream of comprehensive molecular microscopy is still far from realization. Now, in the 21st Century, it is our generation's turn to try.
Mike Muuss (since deceased) of the Army Research Laboratory has provided wire-recordings of John von Neumann lecturing on the occasion of the first public showing of the IBM Naval Ordnance Research Calculator (NORD), December 2, 1954. Here are links to the complete twenty minute lecture as well as a short excerpt.
Von Neumann's lecture has elements of poignancy. Von Neumann and his colleagues had been struggling for more than a decade to get vacuum tube computers to work reliably. The strain of this prolonged effort is evident in von Neumann's speech, as is his joy in finally achieving a four-hour computing run without a breakdown. Yet, at the time of this speech von Neumann had only twenty-six months to live. Thus he did not live to witness the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams he expresses.
However, the primitive wire recording technology of 1954, combined with von Neumann's Hungarian accent, makes it a considerable challenge to understand what he is saying! Here is our best-effort transcript of a brief audio passage ... see if you can do better:
"Those of you present who have lived with this field, and who have lived with and suffered with computing machines of various sorts, and know what kind of regime it is to invest in one, I'm sure have appreciated the fact that it appears that this machine has been completely assembled less than two months ago, has been run on problems less than two weeks ago, and yesterday already ran for four hours without making a mistake!
Those of you who have *not* been exposed to computing machines, and who do not have the desolate feeling which goes with living with their mistakes, will appreciate what it means that a computing machine, after about two weeks of breaking in, has really a faultless run of four hours.
It is completely fantastic on an object of this size; I doubt it has ever been achieved before, and it is an enormous reassurance regarding the state of the art and regarding the complexities to which one will be able to go in the future, that this has been achieved."
Many members of the MRFM community, particularly the students, know what it is to "live with and suffer with" these delicate devices, know the "desolate feeling" that comes from protracted struggle with engineering difficulties, and know the joy that comes from "a faultless run of four hours".
As for whether the progress to date in MRFM provides "an enormous reassurance regarding the state of the art and regarding the complexities to which one will be able to go in the future", this remains to be seen. The goal of comprehensive quantum microscopy will surely require a considerable struggle.