Atomic Theater: IBM Creates the World’s Smallest Movie

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 1 2013 9:19 AM

Atomic Theater: IBM Creates the World’s Smallest Movie

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Still from IBM's "A Boy and His Atom"

© IBM Research. All rights reserved.

In a secret laboratory, a team of scientists races against the clock. They hover over a 2-ton machine so menacing and powerful, it can freeze single atoms in place. With the precision of angels and the patience of gods, the scientists use a super-sharp needle to coax these specks of matter into complex patterns—patterns they hope will communicate to the children of Earth a message so urgent, the fate of the human race depends on it.

At least, that’s what the voiceover might say if this were a feature film. But this is Silicon Valley, not Hollywood, and the film is a 94-second stop-motion reel designed to show kids (and everyone else) that science is awesome as cuss.

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For the last few weeks, a team at IBM has nudged atoms—building blocks of the freaking universe—into slides depicting a short story about a boy and his pet. It took hundreds of these frames to make the movie you see here.

Obviously, this sort of stop motion is a little more complex than your latest Vine. Every second, millions of particles land on a typical surface, so this work had to be completed in a vacuum. And because atoms are feisty at room temperature, IBM used a scanning tunneling microscope to reach temperatures of -268 degrees Celsius (or 4-5 degrees Kelvin)—a point so close to absolute zero, most matter loses its hustle. To push and pull the atoms into place, scientists used a needle so sharp its point ends in a single atom. (Like the Earth and the moon, the needle doesn’t so much “touch” the atom as it does influence it.)

The scientists have experimented with iron, manganese, cobalt, and other various atoms to learn how they react at atomic levels, but they chose a carbon monoxide molecule for the film. Of course, I had to ask the director what he saw in this young star, what separated it from all the other casting couch hopefuls.

“We picked a molecule that was easy to move around on the surface and would stay frozen at 4 degrees Kelvin,” Chandrasekhar (Spike) Narayan, director of science and technology at IBM Research, told me. “This project is about understanding how to guide materials at atomic levels into formations where they can exhibit interesting properties.”

The interesting properties IBM is immediately interested in have to do with data storage. In accordance with Moore’s law, our ability to cram more and more technology into tighter spaces has grown exponentially, and scientists are always looking for the next way to innovate. But instead of looking to make existing technology smaller, Narayan and his team wanted to find the limits at which such technology can begin to exist.

Currently we require about a million atoms to create one stable bit of magnetic information, according to Narayan. But IBM’s research suggests stability starts to set in at much, much smaller levels. Narayan told me, “Early work we did about a year ago indicated we need somewhere in the neighborhood of just 12 atoms in order to store data for hours or days.”

Now let’s put “12 atoms” in terms the rest of us can understand. If data storage could be perfected at this level, it would mean you could keep every Nic Cage movie ever made in a device the size of a fingernail. Oh, and that’s in addition to every other movie in the history of film.

IBM could have simply released that fingernail stat in a press release and waited for headlines. But the movie allows the company to communicate its work to a broader audience. As Narayan put it, “We’re focused on real hard-core science, but we’re also using this movie to start a dialogue with people of all ages about the importance of science and math and technology.”

This sort of thinking is invaluable, and we need more of it. Especially if it means arranging atoms into Vulcan gang signs. Because that also just happened.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.