'Microscience' - a minute field that's making a big splash
Some of the most advanced computer chips being made today carry circuits about two microns wide - roughly the size of the hair on a ladybug's foot. This is small, yes, but not small enough to raise even an eyebrow on Edward Wolf and his colleagues at Cornell University.Skip to next paragraph
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Dr. Wolf is director of a national research facility here designed to explore the world of the small - a mysterious, unfathomable realm that may yield some of tomorrow's most important technologies.
Consider that scientists at the National Research and Resource Facility for Submicron Structures here already have:
* Created the world's smallest artifact, a series of letters so tiny that the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica could printed on a postage stamp.
* Built transistors small enough that 15 of them could perch atop a human hair.
* Devised a way to detect changes in the earth's magnetic field produced by the wink of an eye.
These may seem minute milestones, but researchers have big ambitions for what this and other work might lead to in the future. The whole field of microscience has become one of the hottest areas of research. Consider electronics. In the 1960s, the white-robed priests of high technology managed to shoehorn a few dozen transistors on a computer chip. Today they are cramming more than 260,000 on a sliver of silicon - a shrinking act that has spawned everything from high-speed computers to electronic watches.
But these wafers are clumsily slow and awkwardly large compared with what will be needed for tomorrow's supercomputers, artificial intelligence systems, and other electronic tools. By the close of this decade, logic chips that will carry 5 million transistors on a single chip should be tumbling off production lines.
The multimillion-dollar questions for American researchers are how to build such tiny devices - preferably ahead of the Japanese - and how to understand what happens to them once they are made. This is the domain researchers here at Cornell are rummaging around in. At the same time, they are working on other ideas at the edge of the infinitesimal that will impact fields ranging from physics to chemistry - or end up as crumbled balls of paper on the floor.
Much of the research here, in other words, is decidedly basic - as much an act of faith as anything else. Ideas, if they take shape as products at all, may not do so for 10 years.
The national submicron facility was launched with backing from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1977. Two years ago those probing the universe of the peewee moved into a new building on this upstate New York campus. Current funding for projects comes from the NSF ($1.6 million a year) and private industry (about $600,000).
The two-story lab is a testament to the difficulties of toiling in dimensions smaller than one micron - about 1 /100 the diameter of a human hair. Researchers have to fight the problems of microscopic contaminants. In this fastidious world , a speck of dust looms like a mountain, a vibration from a dropped shoe like an earthquake.