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promised Jim hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of lasers and
fancy equipment to do gas phase work, presumably on clusters," Saykally
says. "But they had problems getting his lab renovated and getting
some aspects of the lab approved by the safety people. So he had
all this equipment sitting out in the hall, and he was getting angry
and frustrated and talking about opening an ice cream store in Waco.
But IBM emphasizes big, important problems in industry and Jim learned
that the big, important problem of the time was how to make silicon
and germanium nanostructures and nanowires. And Jim just got out
a bunch of beakers, read the literature and figured out how to solve
the big problem of the day, all the time while waiting for his physical
chemistry lab to come through. And he did it ahead of all the top
people in the field. Just like that. He never did uncrate his lasers."
denouement to the story was twofold: Not only did it get Heath an
offer at UCLA, where he arrived in early 1994, but it convinced
him that computers and other electronic devices could be synthesized
chemically - from the bottom up - rather than by etching the necessary
circuits out of slabs of silicon, which is how chips are made today.
you take a material and you whittle away almost all of it using
lithography," explains Heath. "It's like sculpting. You come with
a chisel and you take away all the stuff you don't want. I started
thinking about how to build a computer by bringing small amounts
of stuff together, molecules at a time. And I realized there's no
reason why it can't work."
says Heath, "we work in nano," giving it a kind of cowboy-like allure.
And he has generated a host of research projects based on this infinitesimal
scale of chemistry. He is working, for instance, on the study of
quantum dots, which Heath calls artificial atoms or nanoparticles
- tiny chunks of perhaps a thousand atoms of a single element. Heath
and his colleagues have made artificial solids out of these artificial
atoms, and they have learned to precisely control the properties
of these solids, turning them effortlessly from insulators to semiconductors
to superconductors. There are all kinds of "gee-whiz things" one
could do with such artificial solids, says Heath, his favorite being
the synthesis of sensors that would react to, say, a single photon
of light by changing from an insulator to a semiconductor or even
a superconductor. He seems most enamored, however, with the pure
science promise of the work: "You can really go to your favorite
solid-state theory and from first principles design a solid that
tests the theory. And so we can design solids that we can flip between
metals and insulators and other exotic phases, even superconductors.
This is a very, very powerful technology and it's an area that we
invented and have taken pretty far."