“Don’t tell me about microfilm!”

Finally, my biography of Richard Feynman, Genius, is available as an e-book. It can be read in all formats, without prejudice: for example, here (Kindle), here (Nook)here (Apple), and here (Sony). It is created by the innovative (and suspiciously good-looking) people at Open Road.

Feynman, of course, did not live to see e-books. But he was way ahead, as usual. In 1959 he was already imagining, famously, “the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin,” followed by “all the books in the world” in your pocket. “Don’t tell me about microfilm!” he said.

What would our librarian at Caltech say, as she runs all over from one building to another, if I tell her that, ten years from now, all of the information that she is struggling to keep track of—120,000 volumes, stacked from the floor to the ceiling, drawers full of cards, storage rooms full of the older books—can be kept on just one library card! When the University of Brazil, for example, finds that their library is burned, we can send them a copy of every book in our library by striking off a copy from the master plate in a few hours and mailing it in an envelope no bigger or heavier than any other ordinary air mail letter.

He was talking about what we would now call nanotechnology—not about computers, in 1959. “Computing machines are very large,” he pointed out. “They fill rooms.” Still, he added:

There is plenty of room to make them smaller. There is nothing that I can see in the physical laws that says the computer elements cannot be made enormously smaller than they are now. In fact, there may be certain advantages.

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5 Responses to “Don’t tell me about microfilm!”

  1. Catherine says:

    Just out of college I found myself in a very small life drawing group in LA where Feynman also attended. He was dedicated to drawing…and as you can imagine, a remarkable fellow attendee; jovial, mischievous, focused, charming. A highlight of my early career.

    I look forward to reading ‘Genius’.

  2. Sky says:

    And just ten or so years ago I remember being amazed when I wrote to you asking for help with a reference in Genius. I had read the book around when it first came out, remembered a passing reference to a topic that related to a research paper I was working on, but had no success in tracking it down by way of the index. So I thought, “Why not write to the author?” It was flattering to get a quick reply, but what amazed me was that it sounded like even you couldn’t quickly track down a page reference in that even you didn’t have a full-text searchable version…

  3. jagannathan says:

    The way the E-book economy is right now one need to be incredibly rich to have all the books of the world in their pocket.

  4. John Engelke says:

    But I think that one can have all the books in the world in their pocket starting from some earlier date. Books go out of copyright, and thanks to Project Gutenberg we may all download hordes of treatises free one day.

  5. Jim Hartley says:

    I’m not tempted by ebook readers except in bed. Recently I was unusually sick for unusually long and re-read “Genius” with much more attention to phrasing and usage. So well done, so well done…. But reading a large-ish printed book in bed is a problem. If it were not sacrilegious I would buy two copies and carve one into smaller pieces for reading-while-on-ones-back.

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