Friday, 30 March 2007

Tinker Bell and electrons

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael @ 22:47

A recent round of correspondence reminded me of an old theory of mine. So, this post is part autobiography, part philosophy and part speculative fiction. Here goes…
I grew up in San Jose, California. This was in the sixties, before this once small town became part of what is now known as Silicon Valley. The area south of San Francisco acquired that appellation because the first tech-industry there was the fabrication of semiconductors (made from silicon) and not so much the computer and software companies that so dominate the landscape now. Anyway, when I graduated from high-school (in 1971) I didn’t know what I wanted to do and started studying math at the local college. I had an interest in electronics and had even built a couple of pieces of amateur radio gear and some audio stuff. So, to help pay the bills, I started, in 1974, to work for a chip company as a technician. These were pretty rough and tumble times with rapid growth and it was definitely an employees market. I was clever enough to pick up enough knowledge on the job so that within a couple of years I was doing some pretty cool engineering and getting paid for it. Bye to school and into the tech-world.
I mention all this in order to indicate that I am pretty well grounded in semiconductor physics, logic and design. Of course, the circuits I worked with then were fabricated with geometries considerably larger than today but the concepts have changed little. (In fact, I sometimes think that the progress should have been even faster than it has been since what exists today is, for the most part, just a refinement of what I was playing with then. Ho hum.)
But at some point I realized that what we were building was impossible. I mean, a semiconductor device is built on a size-scale that is really mind-bogglingly small. Today, the state change of a transistor in a typical IC is the result of the movement of only a few dozen electrons. And electrons are really, really small. Possibly not even “real”. Maybe it was the experience of watching and single-step clocking ICs under power in a scanning electron microscope (while stoned, and quite an experience it was, too) that first lead me to this theory of mine.
I call it the “Tinker Bell Theory”.
You surely remember watching Mary Martin as Peter Pan when you were small. For those who have a serious gap in their cultural training, Peter Pan is a play where a young boy refuses to grow up (I can identify) and he has a “sidekick” fairy named Tinker Bell. At a point in the play where Tinker Bell drinks some poison (that was meant for Peter) and is dying, Peter turns to the audience for help and pleads that they believe in fairies to save “Tink”. He says to clap your hands if you believe and of course no one can kill a fairy and so everyone claps and all is well once again.
The point is to believe. It occurred to me that semiconductors work because from Shockley on, engineers believe that they do. And when things go wrong and your PC eats that file you’ve been working on for the last few hours and there’s no backup it is because, just for a moment perhaps, a semiconductor engineer somewhere (probably Intel) doubted.
Of course disk drives are impossible, too. Apply my theory and it easy to see that if someone at Fujitsu, Seagate, Toshiba, Western Digital or where ever thinks “damn, that’s impossible!” then poof, heads contact platter and adios baby.
Well, that’s my theory. I think it is at least as good as Intelligent Design.
“I’ll never grow up, never grow up…”

1 Comment »

  1. Even from so far away, you are a delight!


    Comment by pjwyatt — Wednesday, 4 April 2007 @ 17:59

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