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The Art Of Atomic Movement

posted May 8, 2013, 11:37 AM by Ellen Pearlman


A Boy and His Atom - verified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the smallest movie ever made

IBM has staged a movie called A Boy And His Atom all about a boy named Adam falling in love with his atom, and dancing and playing with it. The film was created by literally moving one atom at a time via stop-motion photography, augmented by a scanning tunnelling microscope. The theme of Adam references the Judeo Christian myth of creation, so you can figure out the psychic DNA of the scientists who made the movie. Trust me, they weren’t from Sumatra. The reasoning behind this work was to showcase the future of computational and data storage. 

The whole production took place atop a teeny weeny gold colored reflective metal surface.image

Shinny gold reflective surface stage for moving atoms

Carbon monoxide molecules, the leading actors of the animation are moved around one at a time and screen captured through a computer program. A picture is “drawn” and photographed, and then the next picture is “drawn” and photographed like Claymation for the nano technology set.  Its interesting that the researchers use simplistic 19th century techniques like stop motion animation and storytelling to show the incredibly complex action of moving atoms.


“Drawing” an atomic story, frame by frame magnified 100 million times

The technologies currently in use for data storage need over 100 million atoms to function properly. Scientists discovered with atomic technology they could make due with just 12 atoms to store data. This means you could theoretically walk around with all the movies ever made in the world inside your iPhone. It is a stark contrast to von Neumann architecture, currently used for computers over the past 40 years.  This new model is moving us towards “data centric” ways of computing bringing together neuroscience, supercomputing and nanotechnology that can eventually mimic the function of the human brain.

The way the scientists actually control the atoms is they move a cluster of atoms so close to a single atom that a slight chemical reaction occurs. This allows the lone atom to be shifted sort of like a piece of dirt sucked along by a vacuum cleaner


Sucking up blue atoms, one by one


The laboratory with high powered microscopes where it all happens

The scientists work at -260 C, a temperature so cold the atoms can’t jump around all over the place. This activity does not happen inside a void. When they move a molecule and the sound is amplified, it mimics ice cracking off a large iceberg. 


Atoms moved using markers on the screen.

What is also interesting is you can see traces of the electrons rippling out from the movement of any atom. Its just like when you toss a rock in a pond and watch the ripples.image

What is the sound of one atom moving? Look on the left for circular memory trace left by the movement of one atom.

These electrons in this picture can’t escape to the surface because they are locked in the shinny golden coloured material that holds the atoms, and only the memory of their movement remains. So when an art work evokes memory and the empheral, it is literally referencing atomic behaviour.

The ultimate goal of this research is to emulate the cognition of the brain on a minute scale. Scientists are mapping worm, bee and monkey brains to understand processing routes on neural networks. If they can pare it down to an atomic level the hope is they can one day mimic thought processes and routes as well.


Scientist with a mandala map of neural networks of a monkey brain

SUNDAY, APRIL 21, 2013