January 6th 2012 05:48
A picture of a woman in a bikini in front of a Russian atomic power plant. This picture is only vaguely related to the story below.
It was a story from the 1980s and involved an American scientific breakthrough, the development of a filament so thin that it could only be seen under a microscopic. It was way thinner than the cables commonly used at that time to carry stuff like electricity. It was the thinnest filament ever produced by man.
Well, American man.
In those pre-Google (and pre-Wikileaks) days, information was a scarcer commodity and international borders were thicker. Perhaps the two things were related.
Thicker borders meant fewer firm friends and less knowledge of what everyone else was doing. What the Americans needed was a second opinion, a trusted, knowledgable friend who could confirm that they really had invented the world's thinnest filament.
So they contacted their best friend, the British, and said, "Have a look at this, would you, and tell us what you think."
The Brits took the filament and showed it, hush-hush-like, to a few of their best scientists, and all agreed that they had never seen anything so thin.
The world's a big place, however, especially without Google, and the Brits had an idea. The Japanese were getting quite a reputation, in the early 1980s, for technological innovation, and the Brits and the Japs were getting along quite well at the time. So what about asking for a third opinion? The Japanese need not know the filament came from America, and the Americans need not know the Japanese had been consulted.
Is this the thinnest filament ever invented, the Brits asked the Japanese. Could, indeed, anything thinner ever be created?
The Japanese had a look, and sent the filament back to the Brits with a hole drilled through the middle.
The story was probably an urban myth, one of those yarns which don't let the truth get in the way of entertainment, but it came vividly to mind this week with the news of a breakthrough by scientists at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. They have invented a filament four atoms wide and one atom thick.
This is no urban myth. If you don't believe me, Google it.
You'll all want to know the details, so here they are in plain words: they did it by adding phosphorous to silicon crystal, thereby breaking through the resistivity issues they'd been having below the 10 nanometre level.
The Aussie scientists are pretty pleased, but we suggest they don't send an example to the Japanese. They'd probably send it back with a hole drilled through an atom.