Electronics have come to underpin every aspect of our lives, controlling the cars we drive and the planes we fly, to complex medical machines, virtually all communications equipment and every entertainment technology this side of a good old-fashioned book.
We enjoy receiving gadgets as presents and some of us feverishly await the launch of the next mobile phone, tablet or games console.
Yet, confronted with the question of what makes these contraptions tick, most of us will probably mumble something about silicon chips and point out that next year’s model will be faster and cheaper, so you’d better wait a couple of months before you buy.
So complex is the modern silicon chip, with its (and I mean this literally) billions of parts, that it’s become, paradoxically, uninteresting. Small components, barely visible to the human eye are fascinating, but once these shrink so much that you can fit a million of on the head of a pin, you lose the emotional connection and have no frame of reference. In fact, there is wonderful complexity in our chips and it has taken some pretty radical thinking to make it all happen. These days, scientists put materials under controlled physical strain to make electricity travel faster; they use light to sculpt features smaller than you’d think would be permitted by the laws of physics; and they create 100lb crystals so pure that they contain a single undesirable atom for every hundred thousand million; all this to make chips so ingenious, so practical and so reliable that you don’t even know they’re there.
So next time you’re sending a text, tweet or snapchatting your buddy overseas, think of the billions of pieces that comprise the most advanced technology ever devised, yet.