Thursday, January 29, 2009

Beware the Fine Print!

For anyone who has ever gotten tripped up by the fine print of a cell phone contract; watch out! Scientists at Stanford University have just created the world's smallest writing. These new letters are tiny, only about a third of a nanometer in size. I already have enough trouble figuring out my contract, if they start printing my roaming rates in words less than a thousandth of a millimeter high, I might just give up and revert back to carrier pigeons.

The team of scientists manipulated the quantum waves of an electron on a piece of copper so it would encode 35 bits per electron to encode each letter. A bit is the fundamental unit of computerized data, essentially a switch that signals either on or off. When multiple bits are combined, more complicated data like letters and numbers emerge. These wave patterns actually project a hologram of the letters outwards, which can be seen with a powerful microscope. What would a team of scientists from Stanford University write in the world's tiniest letters? Why the letters SU of course, so everyone can know who wrote it.

This is a major step forward for storing small scale information. Up to this point scientists had thought that atoms would be the smallest repository for data, with one atom storing a single bit of information. However this process was able to store 35 bits on a single electron, showing that there still is no smallest limit for data storage.

The quest to write the smallest began in 1959 when physicist Richard Feynman offered a thousand dollars to the team who could reprint a page from a book, 25,000 times smaller than its usual size. In 1985 a physicist also at Stanford won by writing the first page of "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens in print that needed an electron microscope to read. Five years later, IBM was able to write its name in only 35 xenon atoms. Once again, Stanford is home to the smallest letters in the world.

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