Atoms Star in Smallest Movie Ever Made

Posted May 1st, 2013 at 4:45 pm (UTC+0)
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The World’s Smallest Stop-action Movie (IBM)

Bigger is often better in Hollywood, but IBM is drawing lots of attention for making the smallest movie ever.

A Boy and His Atom is a stop-motion, animated movie made with thousands of precisely positioned atoms in nearly 250 motion picture frames.  The folks at Guinness World Records®  verified that it’s the smallest stop-action movie  ever made.

The storyline, set to a lively musical track, follows a boy who makes friends with a single atom. Together, they go on a spirited journey that has them dancing, playing catch with each other, and bouncing on a trampoline.

Poster promoting IBM's "A Boy and His Atom".  World's smallest movie (IBM)

Poster for “A Boy and His Atom,” the world’s smallest movie. (IBM)

IBM says  its little movie is a unique way of conveying science outside the research community.

“Capturing, positioning and shaping atoms to create an original motion picture on the atomic-level is a precise science and entirely novel,” said Andreas Heinrich, principle investigator at IBM Research. “At IBM, researchers don’t just read about science, we do it. This movie is a fun way to share the atomic-scale world while opening up a dialogue with students and others on the new frontiers of math and science.”

The atoms in the animation were manipulated with an IBM-invented, award-winning scanning tunneling microscope.

“This Nobel Prize winning tool was the first device that enabled scientists to visualize the world all the way down to single atoms,” said Christopher Lutz, a scientist with IBM Research. “It weighs two tons, operates at a temperature of negative 268 degrees Celsius and magnifies the atomic surface over 100 million times. The ability to control the temperature, pressure and vibrations at exact levels makes our IBM Research lab one of the few places in the world where atoms can be moved with such precision.”

Researchers used a standard computer to remotely operate the microscope, manipulating a super-sharp needle that hovered about one nanometer, or one billionth of a meter, above a copper surface, which allowed the scientists to “feel” the atoms.

The scanning tunneling microscope was invented in 1981 by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer at IBM Zürich. This powerful microscope allows scientists to image surfaces at the atomic level and manipulate individual atoms. (IBM)

The scanning tunneling microscope used to manipulate atoms to create the world’s smallest movie. (IBM)

At such a minute distance, the needle was able to physically attract atoms and molecules on the surface and then move them to precisely specified locations on the surface.

According to IBM, the moving atom makes a unique sound that is critical feedback in determining how many positions it’s actually moved.

The scientists created and photographed 242 still images of stop-action motion with the nearly 10,000 individually placed atoms.  Those photos were then rendered into a video that’s about a minute and eight seconds long.

The IBM researchers created the film in part to demonstrate technology that could be used in the future to create computer storage systems, based on atomic-scale memory, that would be capable of storing massive amounts of data.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

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