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HP's tiny advance will have a huge impact - so why no interest?

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Did you know that more than two years ago researchers at the Hewlett Packard Palo Alto laboratories announced that they had developed a new manufacturing process capable of producing molecular-sized circuits much more densely packed than the most advanced semiconductor chips?

More importantly, do you know now what such a breakthrough means? To answer the second question first: it means that the boffins' dream of assembling billions, or even trillions, of molecule-sized electronic switches in an area smaller than a fingernail, and at a cost far lower than today's computer chips, must be coming true at last.

More than two years later this advance has led beyond the iPod in the direction of machines with 16,000-bit memories, tiny yet immensely powerful and inexpensive computers capable of holding entire libraries of text, music and moving pictures, as well as making routine complex scientific calculations that are presently incalculable.

Just imagine walking down the street with the entire contents of the British Library in your wallet, or A Brief History of Time pulsing away through your headphones. It seems incredible that such a prospect does not ignite your enthusiasm much more than it does.Take the discovery that there was water on Mars (millions of years ago), or all the excitement generated by the revelation that a small and now useless cast-iron bridge designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel could be 'saved' from demolition and put back into use, provided one of our numerous antiquarian organisations (eg Westminster City Council) stumps up half a million quid. Or even the claim that the number of drivers caught speeding and running red lights had soared by 600 per cent in one year. Or the revelation that London Underground was planning to shut down groups of lines for weeks on end to carry out long overdue repairs and maintenance.Or the legal battle brewing between the environmental lobby, on the part of thousands of migratory birds, and the alternative energy crowd, represented by a number of big propellers overlooking a tidal mud flat.Or - to come to the point - the vacuous 'debate' about whether more tall buildings should be built in central London.

All of the above would be considered today to be of greater import than any number of increases in the memory size of a new computer system, and yet they have nothing to do with the problem of survival as defined by resource exhaustion, pollution and overpopulation.

As far as we know, the one-time presence of billions of gallons of water on Mars is immaterial for the foreseeable future. In the same way the Brunel bridge is scrap iron, worth considerably less than the £500,000 quoted to 'save' it. The others follow the same pattern of easy dismissal. The number of drivers nicked for speeding or light-jumping correlates to traffic conditions which index to the asymptotic decline of petroleum reserves (in short, while we've got it we'll burn it: while we burn it we'll find or make more of it).

As for the Underground closures, these will happen, but they will not be the disaster that is expected. Instead the inconvenience will be seized upon as a welcome precedent for total closure of the system on safety grounds.

As for the saga of the debate about tall buildings in London and migratory birds and propellers on masts, they will follow the dismal trajectory of speed bumps and bollards. None produce news items that excite the kind of person who would enjoy carrying around the contents of the British Library in a box the size of a fingernail.

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