PHOTO: R. STANLEY WILLIAMS
The memristor is all over the news today. The fourth circuit element discovered at last!
I can't overstate what a big deal this is. My editor forwarded me the press release with a note asking if I thought it was a really late April Fool's joke.
Usually our reporting takes the form of "smallest chip created!" or "farthest constellation photographed!" or "most powerful microscope invented!" -- That's about as enthusiastic as things get in this corner of the journalism world. (Not that there's anything wrong with smaller transistors.) But let's face it, it's the same headline this year, next year, and the year after that. But how often do we get to write about something completely new?
I was excited: but Stan Williams, the HP scientist who discovered the new element, was practically jumping up and down when I talked to him. "It was pretty euphoric," he told me. (I don't hear that word a lot.)
This ended up being a genuine mystery story, complete with hidden treasures and forgotten maps (that map being the 1971 paper by Leon Chua that foretold the existence of a fourth circuit element). Williams said the memristor has been sitting there waiting for someone to discover it for over 100 years. "There was no reason for people even during Maxwell's time not to have come up with a memristor," he said. "It took Leon to figure out that there was something that should be there. And then it took another 40 years until I was able to figure out what it was and how to make it."
Chua was excited too (and by the way, Chua is a big, big deal in the engineering community). He told me electronics engineering text books will need a rewrite. "I'm very happy," he told me. "This is a breakthrough that will set a paradigm shift!"
Chua was so excited that he kept mixing his metaphors-- every time he talked about the memristance phenomena that people had been seeing in their nanoscale devices, he would tell me that the nano community had been "barking up the wrong horse."
I will say one thing, though: memristor? Really? It took me three days to stop saying memresistor, a full week to stop typing memresistor, and all the while my editor kept changing memristor to memresistor in the story.
It's still early in the game-- it's not in the textbooks yet! Is there still time to change the name?