Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Meet IBM’s “Boy And His Atom,” Stars of the Smallest Movie Ever Made

boy_and_atomThe image above shows two animated characters in what has been certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the smallest movie ever made. It’s called “A Boy And His Atom,” and the medium of animation is, you guessed it, atoms.

It lasts all of 60 seconds, and depicts a boy — made up of individual atoms himself — encountering a single atom that he befriends and throws like a ball. He then bounces up and down on a tiny trampoline made up of atoms, then throws the original atom into the sky, where it erupts into a tiny commercial for the company that produced it: IBM.

What’s going on here is this: Scientists at IBM’s Almaden Research Lab in San Jose, Calif., have figured out a way to precisely move and manipulate individual atoms. To do it they’re using a big piece of equipment called a scanning tunneling microscope that weighs two tons and operates at a temperature of minus 268 degrees Celsius (or 450.5 degrees below zero on the Fahrenheit scale, according to the Unit Convert widget on my Mac). In the world of physics and nanotechnology, this thing is a big deal and led the two IBM inventors to share the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1986. (Here’s a video history about it.)

Using a computer, researchers used a tiny needle that moved along a surface of a postage-stamp sized bit of copper. The needle would draw within one nanometer (a billionth of a meter) of the individual atoms and thus “feel” them so it could then move them into place and shift them around frame by frame in order to make the stop-motion action happen. The film you’re about to see is made up of 242 such frames using not one but two of those scanning tunneling microscopes. The atoms have been magnified about 100 million times from their original size.

star_trek_atoms_IBMBefore they tried animation, and in the tradition of humorous art that sometimes appears on the surface of individual computer chips, the folks at IBM experimented with illustrations made of atoms. Among them was a rendering of the Starship Enterprise from “Star Trek” that’s not much more than a single nanometer tall. (Pictured at right; click the image to make it bigger.) Before that, way back in 1989, the big brains at Big Blue were able to spell out the company name using 35 individual atoms of xenon.

So why is IBM using atoms to make crude animations? As has long been the case, everything inside computers is getting smaller all the time. According to Moore’s law — named for Intel co-founder Gordon Moore — individual transistors on chips tend to shrink every 18 to 24 months. So does the amount of space needed to store individual bits of data. Right now, IBM says, it takes about a million atoms to do that, but it can see a trajectory leading to a point in the future to where that number can be reduced to 12 atoms. At that scale, the media to store information will be so compact that every movie ever made, including “A Boy And His Atom,” could be stored on a device the size of your iPhone. That means the ability to move and manipulate individual atoms with great precision will eventually come in handy.

“Steamboat Willie” it’s not, but here for the first time on public display, is IBM’s “A Boy And His Atom.”

And here is the obligatory “Making Of …” video that explains how and why the movie was made, including an interesting detail: What moving individual atoms sounds like.

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I’m a giant vat of creative juices.

— David Pogue on why he’s joining Yahoo