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The Incredible Shrinking Man

Extreme Jobs

Who: Donald Eigler, 48
Extreme job: Nanotechnology research physicist
Where: IBM’s Almaden Research Center, San Jose, California
Web site: www.almaden.ibm.com

Inside a soundproof room, Donald Eigler directs his gaze at the metal monster that dominates the space. Cobbled together from odds and ends — cable and wiring encased in half of an Arizona Iced Tea can, vacuum chambers wrapped in tinfoil to help retain heat — the Scanning Tunneling Microscope seems more like a Calvin and Hobbes Transmogrifier than an ultra-sensitive tool that creates nanoscale structures from individual atoms.

Eigler, a research physicist and fellow at IBM’s famed Almaden Research Center, in San Jose, California, hand-built the device more than 10 years ago, and in 1989, he made history by using it to move 35 xenon atoms to form a nanoscopic IBM logo. Since then, Eigler and his team have continued to expand the boundaries of science by building structures that are measured in billionths of a meter. In 1991, they created an electrical switch that turns on and off with the flick of an atom. And last year, they discovered a new phenomenon: the quantum mirage effect, in which information is transmitted using the wave nature of electrons instead of conventional wiring. Taking such discoveries and translating them into tiny products with huge capacity will shape future generations of data-storage technology. “I imagine the day when some 15-year-old realizes that atoms are not just the things that we’re made of, but that he can put them wherever he wants, whenever he wants, just like that,” Eigler says. “I can’t predict the innovations that will get us from here to there, but I can predict the fact that people will make them. And when they do, they’ll blow your socks off.”


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