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Spring 2000

Speed Demon
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Heath 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.

"He 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."

And 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 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.

The 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."

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