IBM Makes World’s First Atomic Film
May 1, 2013

IBM Casts Atoms As Actors, Creating World’s Smallest Stop-Motion Film

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

Every now and then, it´s fun to show off and remind the world just what you´re capable of. IBM has done that today by releasing what they´re calling the “World´s Smallest Movie,” a short film composed entirely with atoms. As if this weren´t enough, the movie is also accompanied by another series of movies wherein the IBM team explains how they were able to manipulate individual atoms to do their bidding and capture them on film.

The movie, entitled “A Boy and His Atom” only clocks in at a little more than one minute and is magnified over 100 million times to see the tiny, individual atoms at work.

The film is one part 80s-era video game and one part dot-matrix printer. In other words, though the process to get these atoms to play together nicely is extremely sophisticated, the end result isn´t too visually impressive. Even then, the fact that a team of scientists were able to get these atoms to follow commands and draw these pictures makes it more than worthwhile to watch.

In the movie, an atom is seen splitting off from its herd, then bouncing over to a boy. The atom and the boy dance for a bit, and the boy begins to bounce the atom against a wall. The soundtrack matches the monochromatic film well — tiny bells, chimes and small tunes accompany each bounce, jump and movement.

Though this isn´t the first time moving atoms have been caught on film, IBM´s principal scientist Andreas Heinrich told the Wall Street Journal this is the first time atoms have been directed to tell a story, short though it may be.

"This movie is a fun way to share the atomic-scale world," said Heinrich. "The reason we made this was not to convey a scientific message directly, but to engage with students, to prompt them to ask questions."

Heinrich´s team at IBM employed some 10,000 carbon-monoxide molecules, composed of carbon and oxygen atoms, to stitch together this stop-motion film. Each of the atoms measures about 60 picometers, or 2.36 millionths of an inch, across. The team snapped a total of 242 shots to tell the world´s tiniest tale and show off their latest advancements in nanotechnology.

These thousands of atom actors had to work under the most extreme of conditions during the shoot. Big Blue used a remote-operated, two-ton scanning tunneling microscope to stage and shoot the film. This microscope can magnify images up to 100 million times, allowing humans a look into the world of an atom. To render the tiny pico-players placid, Heinrich and team placed the atoms on a copper surface in a chamber 450-degrees Fahrenheit below zero. At this temperature, the atoms become easier to move and manipulate.

According to Heinrich, if the film had been shot at room temperature, the atoms would have moved on their own and ignored any direction from the film´s crew.

To move the atoms, the team used a tiny and extremely sharp needle which they moved just above the copper surface at a distance of just one nanometer. Rather than touch and bump the atoms, this sharp needle creates an electrical current which persuades the atoms to jump to their next mark. In an accompanying video, Heinrich explains that the team was able to determine how far they had moved an atom by listening to the sound these atoms made as they scooted along the surface.

The atoms make different sounds depending on where they are in relation to the surface of other atoms. By measuring the sound, the filmmakers-scientists were able to position the atoms in the area they wanted, then use the microscope to confirm their position and snap a picture.

Now that the film is complete, the Guinness World Record team has granted IBM with the record for “Smallest Stop-Motion Film.”