Stanford Uni writes world's smallest letters

They don't make reading specs powerful enough to see these letters
They don't make reading specs powerful enough to see these letters

The world might be going to hell in a handbasket but it's good to know that physics students are still working hard on important scientific breakthroughs - like writing their names really, really small.

Stanford University researchers have just announced they've written the smallest letters ever - assembled from subatomic-sized bits as small as 0.3 nanometers, or roughly one third of a billionth of a meter.

Those wacky kids encoded the letters S and U (as in Stanford University, or Stupid and Useless) within the interference patterns formed by quantum electron waves on the surface of a sliver of copper. The wave patterns even project a tiny hologram of the data, which can be viewed with a powerful microscope.

Apparently, the craze for small writing is all the fault of legendary physicist Richard Feynmann who offered a $1,000 prize in 1959 for anyone who could write a page from an ordinary book 25,000 times smaller than usual (a scale at which the entire contents of the Encyclopaedia Britannica would fit on the head of a pin).

IBM letters smaller than its share price

A Stanford Uni grad broke that first barrier in 1985 with electron lithography, then IBM took the prize in 1990 by writing, you guessed it, IBM in individual xenon atoms.

The new super-mini Stanford letters are 40 times smaller than the original prize-winning effort and more than four times smaller than the IBM initials.

The nanotechnology gimmick apparently has some real world applications - including storing more digital information in less space.

"The assumption has been that the ultimate limit is when one atom represents one bit, and then there's no more room—in other words, that it's impossible to scale down below the level of atoms," says Hari Manoharan, Assistant Professor of Physics.

"But in this experiment we've stored some 35 bits per electron to encode each letter. And we write the letters so small that the bits that comprise them are subatomic in size. So one bit per atom is no longer the limit for information density."

Don't go expecting this to mean smaller netbooks in the next year or so, mind.

Mark Harris is Senior Research Director at Gartner.