Doug Ohlberg has worked in the oil fields of Alaska. He has picked
peaches and plums and figs in California's Central Valley. He
can identify birds and plants and stars, and he's studied geology,
astronomy, ornithology and anthropology with the California Academy
He's also a highly competent chemist who has managed to make
films of uniformly close-packed molecules with extremely low defect
densities. These films, layers one molecule thick, are sandwiched
between metal electrodes and act as switchable conduits through
which electricity passes, providing the basis for molecular memory
devices that switch between off and on states.
"It's crucial that the film doesn't have any holes or defects,
or the device will short circuit," he says. "The molecules
have to be packed cheek by jowl with each other. The challenge
is to adjust conditions so that they do that."
In some ways, Ohlberg says, what he's doing is a variation of
an experiment Benjamin Franklin conducted more than two centuries
ago. The scientist-inventor-statesman-publisher placed a teaspoon
of oil on a pond on a windy day and watched how it quickly spread
over a half-acre and stilled the waves. (This was the first experiment
from which molecular dimensions could be determined).
Similarly, Ohlberg is working with molecules that don't mix with
water, adding enough in a controlled way so that when they spread
out, the film they form is only one molecule thick.
"One thing about doing this job is looking at things you
can't really perceive with your senses," he says. "We're
continually debating different interpretations of what we're seeing
-- sort of creating reality."
Ohlberg is sure to spend much of his spare time well grounded
in reality. Besides his extensive studies with the California
Academy of Sciences, he is a passionate hiker and amateur botanist,
studying flower structures, textures, smells and other characteristics
of plants in order to identify them.
That process, he says, "makes you really look at something
and become aware of it. There are all these little parallel worlds
going on simultaneously, and most of the time we're oblivious
Ohlberg was one of the early members of the Quantum Science Research
group (which encompasses the team that created the recent molecular
memory and logic device). He joined the group in 1996, when it
was just five strong and had just embarked on its research into
extending computer technology beyond the limits of silicon.