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is the quintessential experimentalist: His colleagues describe him
as fearless and intuitive, possessing an almost uncanny ability
to get an experiment to work. Kroto says Heath has "green fingers,"
the experimental equivalent of a gardener's green thumb. He will
attack an interesting problem with the confidence that he will do
what has to be done to make it work, learn what he has to learn
to solve the problem.
has a killer instinct," says Pat Collier, his postdoctoral fellow
at UCLA. "He just knows what's really cool out there and how to
get it." As a result, his latest work - the creation of a futuristic
computer architecture based on molecular switches and quantum wires
so thin they are only several atoms across - appeared last July
on the front page of The New York Times under the headline: "Tiniest
Circuits Hold Prospect Of Explosive Computer Speeds."
Heath is now a principal investigator in an $8-million endeavor,
funded jointly by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency and
Hewlett-Packard Corporation, to turn these tiny circuits into a
workable computer. This would be step one in a technology that holds
the potential to create computers not only tiny, inexpensive and
ubiquitous - "an integral part of every man-made object," as the
Times put it ¾ but 100-billion times more efficient than the PC
on your desktop. (The smaller the wires and switches, the less electrical
current they require to turn on and off, translating into a computer
that can potentially perform a vast number of operations per second
while consuming very little power.) Heath is also working to create
what he calls the manufacturing technology of the future: a "bottom-up"
manufacturing method of chemically assembling his molecular computers
and other electronic devices, all so small that millions could fit
on the head of a pin.
notion falls into the realm of nanotechnology, a discipline existing
at the intersection of science fiction and science fact that is
so exciting and promising that Business Week recently anointed it
one of its 21 great ideas for the 21st century. (Literally, nano,
from the Greek nanos, or dwarf, means 1-billionth part of, as in
a nanosecond.) Indeed, in January, President Clinton announced his
proposal to launch a $225-million, multi-agency National Nanotechnology
Initiative, promising potential breakthroughs in everything from
materials and manufacturing to medicine, agriculture, computation,
the environment and national security. As Heath puts it, in his
soft-spoken, laid-back Texas drawl: "A manufacturing technology
at this scale is inevitable. If we don't do it, somebody is going
to. And probably lots of people."