A Boy And His Atom: The World’s Smallest Movie

Scientists are known for loving their work. Biologists tend to their cultures and animals. Physicists polish their exquisite machines like sports car entusiasts treat vintage Ferraris. So do chemists love atoms? Apparently they do. At least enough to write a love story with, and about them.

IBM scientists have created the world’s smallest movie using individual atoms. It’s the story of a boy and his playful atom buddy, drawn in stop motion and with each quantum pixel positioned using a scanning tunneling microscope. Every frame is magnified a stunning 100 million times!

This amazing feat was accomplished by using a charged atomic needle to drag single carbon monoxide molecules (the individual atoms we see are one side of that two-atom molecule) around on a copper substrate. I’ve posted a little bit about these feats of atomic art before, with these “quantum corrals” and “ferrous wheels”

See those ripples around each atom? They remind me of pebbles being tossed into a still pond. They are actually ripples in the electron field of the copper surface below! It’s a reminder that, contrary to many textbooks, electrons behave more like waves than particles following an orbit. And like any other wave, they can form intricate interference patterns. Check out this previous post for more on that.

The hope is that manipulating atomic structures like this may lead to even greater information storage capacity. Imaging all the world’s books and movies on your mobile phone at once!

Here’s a “making of” movie from IBM, featuring the sound of atoms being moved as well as the encouraging sight of several female team members.

This makes me as happy as atom boy there.