Thirty years before Feynman

In his talk at the recent Nanoethics conference, Michael Bennett of RPI brought our attention to a 1929 essay by J.D. Bernal which predicts a technology where physics, chemistry, and mechanics fuse and result in an ability to build to molecular specifications. Read More for excerpts. Boldface added for emphasis:

The first step will be the development of new materials and new processes in which physics, chemistry and mechanics will be inextricably fused. The stage should soon be reached when materials can be produced which are not merely modifications of what nature has given us in the way of stones, metals, woods and fibers, but are made to specifications of a molecular architecture. Already we know all the varieties of atoms; we are beginning to know the forces that bind them together; soon we shall be doing this in a way to suit our own purposes. In fact, Professor Goldschmidt of Oslo has already made many model structures in which existing substances are closely copied in different atoms, so as to make new substances, softer or harder, or more or less fusible. Sulpho-nitrdes with silicate structures will be harder and more infusible than anything on earth. A similar substance – carboloy – which is already on the market – combines the strength of steel with the hardness of diamond, and is capable of working glass like a metal. There are similar possible model structures for organic substances; the complexities are greater but the results will be more far-reaching. The linked molecules that make fibers and elastic substances such a rubber or muscle, are already yielding to X-ray investigation; the proteid bodies of living matter must have an analogous but more complex structure. After the analysis will come the synthesis; and for one place in which we can imitate nature we will be able to improve on her in ten, and furnish models of organic materials with more varied properties and capable of withstanding more rigorous conditions. The result – not so very distant – will probably be the passing of the age of metals and all that it implies – mines, furnaces, and engines of massive construction. Instead we should have a world of fabric materials, light and elastic, strong only for the purposes for which they are being used, a world which will imitate the balanced perfection of a living body.

At the same time, much that we require for the purposes of modern life would become no longer necessary. With improved systems of chemical manufacture our food and our clothing will be made with much less expenditure of energy in manufacture and transport. And the development of mechanism will not cease: it should turn into more refined forms – heat-engines capable of working at lower and lower temperature differences, engines of higher and higher speed, electrical machines of high potential and high frequency – and should lead to the solution of two most fundamental problems, the efficient transmission of energy by low frequency (wireless) waves, and the direct utilization of the high frequency (light) waves of the sun. On the chemical side the problem of the production of food under controlled conditions, biochemical and ultimately chemical, should become an accomplished fact. In the new synthetic foods will be combined physiological efficacy and a range of flavor equal to that which nature provides, and exceeding it as taste demands; with a range of texture also, the lack of which so far has been the chief disadvantage of substitute food stuffs. With such a variety of combinations to work on, gastronomy will, for the first time, be able to rank with the other arts.

All these developments would lead to a world incomparably more efficient and richer than the present, capable of supporting a much larger population, secure from want and having ample leisure, but still a world limited in space to the surface of the globe and in time to the caprices of geological epochs. Already ambition is stirring in men to conquer space as they conquered the air, and this ambition – at first fantastic – as time goes on become more and more reinforced by necessity. Ultimately it would seem impossible that it should not be solved.

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