If only there was an Oscar for "Smallest Movie," a group of IBM nanophysicists would be a shoe-in with their new one-minute stop-motion video starring 130 atoms.
A Boy and His Atom, which debuts Wednesday, has already been certified by the Guinness folks as the "world's smallest movie."
While it isn't exactly the most complicated story line — the nearly monochrome video features a boy, appropriately named Adam, who dances and plays with a toy atom — what's really amazing is how they did it.
The team of physicists-turned-filmmakers used a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) cooled to just above absolute zero (-450 F). At that temperature, the otherwise excitable atoms "chill" just enough to take stage direction.
Then, they ran a tiny needle on the STM across the surface of a piece of copper about the size of a postage stamp. As All Things Digital explains:
"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 STM applies a negative voltage to the sample and a positive voltage to the needle, and then it gets really complicated. The STM "records the minute changes in quantum tunneling current as the needle passes over bumps (atoms, molecules) in the sample, which can then be turned into the visualizations that you see above. By increasing the voltage, the needle can also pick up individual atoms and move them to a new location," ExtremeTech reports.
The images are magnified 100 million times, and each frame is just 45-by-25 nanometers (for comparison, a human hair is about 100,000 nanometers in diameter).
If that doesn't make perfect sense to you, the filmmakers themselves explain here in a "making of" video.
The short video took two weeks of 18-hour days for the four scientists working on it. But it was no idle lark; it's a demonstration of where they're going with nanotechnology.
Andreas Heinrich, a principle investigator at IBM Research who was part of the film team, says that for the past 40 years, technologists have been simply shrinking the same silicon transistor to fit more of them on progressively smaller chips.
But there are physical limits to that approach. Now, Heinrich says, scientists are looking into the magnetic properties of atoms on surfaces to answer a "very simple question": How small can you make a magnet and still use it for data storage?
Current magnets are made about one-million atoms in size, but IBM says with the kind of technology demonstrated in A Boy and His Atom, they can do it with just 12 atoms.
With data storage units built on that minute scale, "you could carry around not just two movies on your iPhone, but you could carry around any movie that was ever produced," he says.
Heinrich says the movie isn't just about demonstrating IBM's prowess in nanotechnology.
"If I can get 1,000 kids to join science rather than go into law school, I would be happy," he says.