Published in the The Best of Annals of Improbable Research

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Nanometer-Scale Kitchen Appliances and the Physical Limits of Toastability

Jim Cser, Applied Breakfast Laboratory, Hillsboro, Oregon

I) Pretentious Introductory Hype

Let's face it -- people just love to invent stuff [1]. Many technologies (e.g. Salad Shooters, eight-track tapes, Yugos) have made only a minimal contribution to society, whereas others (e.g. electric guitars, Post-it Notes, Jello 1-2-3) have had far more impact. Indeed, once in a while, a particularly useful technology will really catch on, transforming global civilization before our very eyes (see Table 1.)

Right now we are at just such a threshold: namely, the dawn of the Nanotechnology Revolution[2] (nanotechnology, for those just joining us, involves building machines that are really, really, really darn tiny). As in any true revolution, however, no one has the slightest idea of what is going on. Though various types of nanogadgets have been proposed, these were mostly to impress dates at parties, and even then had only modest success[3].

In any case, talk is cheap, and it is time for nanotechnology to put out. Clearly, nothing would be a better test of nanotechnology than new, improved household kitchen appliances. So, to this end, this author has embarked upon the ultimate quest, an endeavor to stretch the limits of mind, spirit, and department funding: building the world's smallest toaster.

II) Pseudo-scientific Handwaving

What advantages will nanotoasters have over conventional macroscopic toaster technology? First of all, the savings in counter space will obviously be substantial. Second, since heat transfer scales as toast area, the total heat flux per unit volume of bread scales with inverse bread dimension, so smaller toast means more efficient toasting. Finally, since nanotoasters will have dimensions smaller than the average wavelength of visible light, there will be no danger of manufacture in awful colors such as avocado.

Before we can build the world's smallest toaster, however, we must first agree on what a toaster does. The simple answer is that a toaster makes toast[4]. More precisely, though, a toaster applies heat to a square, flat piece of bread (aspect ratio roughly 10:10:1) until it is brown and crunchy[5]. Being able to toast a bagel without having to get it out with a fork would be a big plus, but this is perhaps beyond the scope of any future technology. Pop-Tarts should be accommodated, but not exclusively, as they can be manipulated to excel in toaster benchmark tests, thus undermining any measurements of overall toaster performance

One philosophical point which must not be overlooked is that the world's smallest toaster, to be called fully functional, implies the existence of the world's smallest slice of bread. The smallest quantity of bread that can be sliced and toasted has yet to be experimentally determined, but in the quantum limit we must neccesarily encounter fundamental toast particles, which the author will unflinchingly designate here as " croutons " [6]. It is hoped that quantum toasters will eliminate " crumbs " , the discarded by- products of toast, which cause so many problems at macroscopic scales.

III) Questionable Experimental Methods

Not surprisingly, the tools needed to fabricate and test nanoappliances are nearly as speculative as the nanoappliances themselves. Fortuanately, for a short while (and when no one else was looking), the author had access to an experimental, top-of-the-line Virtual Tachyon Stream Nanoplasty (VTSN) system [7]. According to the manufacturer, VTSN can manipulate undetectibly small quantities of matter, using the physical principle of " trust us ".

The first test of the VTSN system, making a standard macroscopic piece of toast, was carried out easily by suspending a slice of bread over the power supplies in the back of the system. After this promising result, the next step was to load the VTSM system with a few grams of paper clips, push the appropriate buttons, and hope for the best. After approximately ten minutes of loud grinding noises, the system screeched to a halt and then released a small puff of white smoke, indicating successful nanotoaster fabrication.

Conveniently, the nanometer-scale slices of bread needed to test the toasters were commercially available through the Greenblatt Sceintific Bakery catalog [8]. A bread size of 50 nm/side was chosen, as the smaller sizes were temporarily out of stock. Both bread and toasters were dumped into a small flask, which was then shaken (not stirred), the theory being that the bread slices would have a natural affinity for their complimentary toaster binding sites.

For the final part of the experiment, the actual nanotoasting process, the reaction flask was placed onto a hot plate for a short time. Assuming that the hot plate produced roughly the same amount of heat as a conventional toaster, and using the scaling relation described in the previous section, the toasting time was calculated to be on the order of 100 nanoseconds (several large cups of coffee induced the necessary reflexes for removing the flask). Since there was no evidence of the characteristic " burnt toast" odor, the experiment was deemed not to have been an obvious outright failure.

IIII) Irrational Conclusions

Because of the nanoscopic size of the toast, the Uncertainty Principle made it impossible to exactly determine the " doneness " of the toast. For that matter, it was also difficult to see whether anything significant had happened at all. However, all is not lost, since we must realize that there is a small but finite probability that toasting actually occured in this experiment, which means that toasting definitely occured in at least one other parallel universe.

So what does this tell us about the future of nanotechnology? The conventional wisdom currently falls into two camps: either that nanotechnology is the wave of the future, or that nanotechnology is probably just a big scam. According to this research, the inescapable conclusion is that nanotechnolgy is both the wave of the future and probably just a big scam, and that this fortunate combination of unlimited promise and inherently ambiguous results should generate enough controversy to fuel the engines of science for years to come.


Table 1.        Technological revolutions and their impact

Technological Revolution        Contribution to Civilization 
Neolithic Revolution            Medium-sized rocks 
Agricultural Revolution	        Vegetables
Industrial Revolution           Industry 
Microprocessor Revolution       Nintendo 
Biotechnology Revolution        Bigger vegetables 
and soon... 
Nanotechnology Revolution       Nanotoasters
(Back to text)
Footnotes: 

[1] United States Patents, Nos. 1 - 5,308,868 
[2] It's actually more like the late morning, but "dawn" scans better 
[3] Tell me about it.... 
[4] Duh. 
[5] Some people prefer their toast softer, but they just don't understand.  
[6] This was the worst joke in the paper. You may continue reading 
    without fear. 
[7] The manufacturer, DEI Industries, has since recalled our system for
    "causality violations" generated, presumably, by a series of 
    bounced checks.
[8] In my opinion, this is the greatest thing since...since...oh, something.
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