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IBM Fellow reflects on the future of nanoscience, IBM’s contribution to IT in the past 100 years, and more

Nanoscience pioneer Sir Alec Broers

Nanoscience pioneer Sir Alec Broers

IBM Fellow Sir Alec Broers was a pioneer of e-beam lithography and is particularly noted for his research and development of electron radiation devices for the imaging of semiconductor circuits on chips. In September 2008, Sir Alec Broers took over from Sir David Cooksey as chairman of the board of directors at the Diamond Light Source, the United Kingdom‘s largest new scientific facility for 30 years.

Sir Alec Broers recently toured the newly opened Binnig and Rohrer Nanotechnology Center at the IBM Research – Zurich Lab, where the ultramodern noise-free labs attracted his particular interest. Impressed by the cutting-edge facilities, Sir Alec took a few moments to talk with w3 about the challenges facing today’s nanoscience engineers and to share a memory or two from his long and successful career.

For the complete interview, check out the video on YouTube.

Q. What challenges do you see for future engineers?

A. Engineers are determining the future of the human race in so many ways. It’s very important for them to be cognizant of social trends; they should understand how other people are thinking. You see, there’s a basic issue between applied and pure science. Engineers are people who have to cope with problems, no matter whether they can solve them perfectly or not. Engineers deal with imperfect situations all the time. If we’re building a system, we can’t just quit because the theory doesn’t work. So I’ve always felt it very important for engineers to be fairly broadly trained. We should inspire the brightest of young people to become engineers because their role is so important.

Q. Why do engineers need to be socially rounded people?

A. Often, engineers carry large responsibilities, and large responsibilities can generate stress. Engineers also have to be creative, so it’s very important that they have outside interests. If you’re involved in other activities, you will normally meet a different set of people with a different set of interests. If you go off and do something completely different that takes you out of your normal life, how often do you come back into your standard life and the idea you’ve been searching for is suddenly there? Particularly if you are going to carry a lot of responsibility, it pays to have something else you’re passionate about.

Q. Where do you see the future of nanoscience?

A. Let’s divide it up. I started in the early 60s to make very, very small objects. That technology was used extensively in the semiconductor business. But conventional lithographic techniques have their limits. I spent a lot of time in the lab exploring that limit of about 10 nm. When Binnig and Rohrer came along with the scanning tunneling microscope, and then Don Eigler and others learned to move atoms around with it, we suddenly took a step forward. So now you had 10 to 20 times that resolution capability. However, that took you into a new regime, but it wasn’t easy to extend the old regime into the new one because costs were always a major factor of Moore’s Law and of scaling things ever higher. A lot of these techniques—although they have phenomenal resolution—are not easily scaled up. Looking forward, I see that process now beginning. So there’s one area where the new science that began in this lab 30 years ago is going to have applications.

The other area, of course, is what this delegation I’m leading from the UK is all about, that is the interface between physical science—the microelectronics world, if you like—with medicine. We’re right down now to dimensions where you can detect and measure molecules and see what’s going on in biological processes. I see that just exploding as we go forward. We’re going to have a totally new era, where these new techniques are going to find their place as we seek to overcome the limits that have appeared in the semiconductor business.

Q. In 100 years, what has IBM contributed to IT?

A. It was of course IBM who brought modern IT to the business world in a very pragmatic way, and it has gone on to drive that in a very imaginative way. Now, of course there were many, many other players, and the world has grown, but IBM has been central in that process. This has been admirable about the company. It’s a common characteristic of all institutions that are long-lived: IBM has had to go through some pretty severe changes along the way. I joined IBM not long after Tom Watson Jr. decided that all these mechanical calculations were going to be replaced with electronic switches. A lot of people thought that a room full of vacuum valves wasn’t a very viable proposition. But that was an incredibly insightful change. Then of course all the changes that microelectronics brought along. The business environment has also changed dramatically. When I joined the company, the 360 series was around, which was an integrated series of computers. By the 1980s, we had separate families of computers, and the company got into trouble because these different families tried to sell against each other. The company was no longer selling an integrated package. Today, IBM is back to solving problems. These are big business changes, and I think IBM is being a real example to industries to do what you have to do if you’re going to be a long-lived, important company.

Q. Any interesting anecdotes from your IBM years?

A. (Laughs) Oh yes. I had built this new scanning microscope, which I’d been allowed to do in my spare time. It ended up being quite useful because we actually made the first functioning nano-dimensioned devices such as the SQUID in that machine. But I was doing biology in this machine, and we didn’t have the sort of sophisticated vibration isolation system [of this new Nanotechnology Center]. So I built my microscope on a large aluminum table hanging on four springs and dampers so I could eliminate the vibrations. It was a large version of what Binnig and Rohrer used to hang their little experiment when they were first building the STM. Well, Arthur Watson came into the lab once, and I was talking about the bacterial viruses I was working on. He folded his arms and asked “Well, now, what is IBM working in this field for?” Then he leaned back on the bench and put his foot on the table of the microscope, not knowing that it was freely suspended, and of course the whole thing fell over. Fortunately, no damage was done. Two days later—no instant email in those days—I got a fairly long, handwritten letter from Arthur Watson, apologizing for almost destroying my microscope, which he hadn’t done, but also apologizing for asking me in a somewhat critical way why I was working on biology. Because he understood now that it had potential importance and it was just the sort of thing that IBM should work on. And that was great for somebody like me who had only been in the company for four or five years, that the management had that kind of attitude towards not only interacting with the employees but a willingness to take on a new concept as to what a research division should be doing in the world. I guess that’s one of my favourite stories.
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