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involved, including the funding agents in Washington, seems excited
about the work. In part, because Heath and Williams have pointed
out that such molecular-sized computers seem to promise a billion-fold
increase in efficiency over today's silicon-chip devices, which
are reaching barriers in speed and efficiency set by fundamental
physical limits. As silicon devices get smaller and smaller, they
begin to edge into a realm in which quantum-mechanical effects become
important. To pass this quantum-mechanical barrier requires devices
that are inherently quantum mechanical, which is not the case with
silicon semiconductors but is with molecular switches. "The devices
have to be based on completely different physics from what current
semiconductor devices are based on," says Williams, "and built out
of totally different types of stuff. Almost certainly molecules.
So we have this dual dilemma: We have to both create entirely new
device types and entirely new ways of making them. That's the basis
behind the work Jim and I are doing with HP right now."
calls the promise of molecular computers "fantastically amazing,"
and adds that "it's very rare in any physical science that you see
an operational improvement of a billion that's just waiting there
to be tapped." Molecular-scale computers hold the promise of putting
the calculating ability of today's most powerful supercomputers
in a chip the size of a grain of sand. The potential applications
are limited only by the power of the imagination.
Heath, it's made his dedication to his science even more intense
than it was. Despite having two children, a wife who is a doctor
and his own obsession with music, Heath gets into the laboratory
at 4:30 or 5 a.m. and works until seven in the evening. He'll put
in another four or five hours on Saturday and Sunday. Sleeping only
five hours helps leave time for his family, although not as much
as he would like.
seems kind of insane," he admits. "There's really no excuse for
it. But I really want to make this computer happen. I want to see
it get built. It would be great if it changed the world, and I think
we have a legitimate chance."
Taubes is a freelance writer . . . more TK