The world’s newest, smallest film star: an atom - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - May 2, 2013

Thursday, May 2, 2013


The research arm of technology giant IBM has unveiled the “world’s smallest movie," an animation made using one of the tiniest constituent parts of the universe, the atom.

A Boy and his Atom depicts a boy who meets a single atomic particle, which dances with him, allows him to play catch and forms a trampoline for him to jump on.

Scientists used a powerful microscope – a Nobel prizewinning invention that was the first device that allowed scientists to see single atoms – to painstakingly arrange the individual particles over 250 frames of stop-motion animation.

The atoms in the movie are magnified more than 100 million times.

“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, principal investigator at IBM Research.

The “scanning tunneling microscope” that made this feat possible weighs two tons and has to be cooled to minus 268 degrees Celsius, only a few degrees above absolute zero, the lowest possible temperature.

Scientists use a computer to remotely operate a super-sharp needle along a copper surface to manipulate the atoms. Placed one nanometer (a billionth of a meter) above the surface, the needle physically attracts atoms and can pull them to a precise location.

The film-makers used a distinctive sound made by the moving atoms as feedback to determine how much their position had changed.

The atom project is not just for fun. IBM is trying to develop new technology for computer data storage.

As engineers pack more and more computer circuits into a smaller space, they are approaching atomic dimensions. But current techniques are restricted by physical limitations.

Through its atomic research, IBM has discovered that a single “bit” – a binary digit, the ones and zeros that make up all computer data – can be stored using just 12 atoms. Current devices need about a million atoms to store a bit.

The company says that if it can commercialize its discovery, it could store all the films ever made on a device the size of a fingernail. Then the movies really will have got small.

The animation:

The making of the animation:


1.)Atoms are tiny particles that make up parts of the universe. Do you think it is important to find out what the universe is made of? Why/why not?

2.)What is stop motion animation? Where could you find out more about it?

3.) Why might it be important to fund and support scientists and engineers?

4.) If you could invent anything, what would it be and why?