Monday 23 July 2007

Book Review: Sand to Silicon

Business Daily from THE HINDU group of publications, Monday, Feb 19, 2007 ePaper

Taking a trip into the past
D. Murali
The story of digital technology comes alive, capturing pioneering work done by Indians too.

What does S. Ramadorai see when he crystal-gazes? "I see the excited anticipation of the next big boom waiting to happen," he writes in the introduction to Sand to Silicon by Shivanand Kanavi, from Rupa ( .
"Very simply put, more and more things will get digital. This digitisation means that a host of different devices and services will talk the same language," forecasts Ramadorai.
The book is `an excursion into the past' to narrate `the amazing story of digital technology', especially to those who are curious to know what lies behind the boxes, be they PCs (personal computers) or modems. And to those who want to know `how microchips, computers, telecom, and the Internet came into being'.
Also, to the avid, who are looking for answers to questions such as: "Who were the key players and what were their key contributions? What were the underlying concepts in this complex set of technologies? What is the digital technology that is leading to the convergence of computers, communication, media, movies, music and education? Who have been the Indian scientists and technologists who played a significant role in this global saga... ?"
Do you know, for instance, that Jagdish Chandra Bose created a semiconductor microwave detector in the 1890s, when experimenting with electromagnetic waves? Bose called it `coherer'. Made of an iron-mercury compound, it was `the first solid-state device to be used,' says the book. Bose demonstrated his invention at the Royal Institution in London in 1897. "Guglielmo Marconi used a version of the coherer in his first wireless radio in 1897."
Wikipedia has an elaborate page on Bose where you'd find this snatch: "Bose went to London on a lecture tour in 1896 and met Marconi, who was conducting wireless experiments for the British post office. In an interview, Bose said he was not interested in commercial telegraphy and others can use his research work."
Neville Mott, who won the Nobel Prize in 1977 for his contributions to solid-state electronics, remarked that J.C. Bose was `at least 60 years ahead of his time' and that in fact, Bose had `anticipated the existence of P-type and N-type semiconductors'.
Fast forward to read about another Indian, Pallab Chatterjee. In the 1970s, when working in Texas Instruments, he played a major role in developing a solution to a problem that memory chipmakers were then faced with: Limited availability of surface. In Chatterjee's words, "The dilemma was, should we build skyscrapers or should we dig underground into the substrate and build basements and subways?"
What was the answer? `Trenching' technology to pack in more micro transistors per square centimetre. "This deep sub-micron technology resulted in the capacity of memory chips leapfrogging from kilobytes to megabytes. Texas Instruments was the first to introduce a 4 MB (megabyte) DRAM (dynamic random access memory), back in 1985." A big advance in miniaturisation, in those days, notes Kanavi.
Chatterjee was to collaborate with Krishna Saraswat of Stanford University to bring about `changes in manufacturing techniques that made the whole US chip industry competitive'. Saraswat is working these days on reducing the time taken by signals to travel between chips and even within chips, says Kanavi. "The `interconnects' between chips can become the limiting factor to chip speeds, even before problems are faced at the nano-physics level," reads a quote of Saraswat in the book.
Just a sampler of what can be the right read for an afternoon this weekend.

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