Big Idea, Writ Small

September/October 2009

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Big Idea, Writ Small

Courtesy Hari Manoharan

In 1959, physicist Richard Feynman challenged his colleagues to reduce a standard page of text to 1/25,000 of its original size. He offered a $1,000 prize, which Stanford grad student Tom Newman, MS ’80, PhD ’86, won in 1985 by shrinking the first page of A Tale of Two Cities.

Five years later, IBM took the “smallest writing” crown for arranging individual atoms to spell its moniker. Now, Hari Manoharan, an assistant professor of physics, and graduate students Laila Mattos and Chris Moon have reclaimed bragging rights for Stanford by creating subatomic script four times smaller than IBM’s.

The researchers bounced electron waves off carbon monoxide molecules strategically arranged on a tiny copper chip. The interference patterns encoded a miniscule S and U, which, with the aid of a powerful microscope, could be viewed as a 3-D image. The two letters were created at different voltages, achieving a new level of data density, Manoharan says. “Everyone thought the limit was one bit per electron, but we put 35 bits in a single electron.” The technique could one day have dramatic implications for data storage.

Or, as comedian Jay Leno joked in a Tonight Show monologue referencing the work, car rental companies could use the technology to create fine print in contracts.

This article was modified from the print version of the magazine.

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