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November 2nd, 2007

Star makers

For example, nanotechnology may facilitate the development of von Neumann probes. As American physicist Richard Feynman observed in his seminal essay, 'There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom', there is nothing in the laws of physics to proscribe building armies of molecular-sized machines. At present, scientists have already built atomic-sized, entertaining curiosities, ranging from an atomic abacus with buckyballs to an atomic guitar with strings, measuring about 100 atoms across.

Paul Davies speculates on the idea that a spacefaring civilisation could make good use of nanotechnology to construct miniature probes to explore the galaxy, perhaps no bigger than the palm of your hand. "The tiny probes I'm talking about will be so inconspicuous that it's no surprise that we haven't come across one," he says. "It's not the sort of thing that you're going to trip over in your backyard. So if that is the way technology develops - namely, smaller, faster, cheaper - and if other civilisations have gone this route, then we could be surrounded by surveillance devices."


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