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IBM creates 'world's smallest movie'

Scientists from IBM have created what is being described as the world’s smallest movie, made with one of the tiniest elements in the universe: atoms.

Named A Boy and His Atom, the Guinness World Records-verified movie used thousands of precisely placed atoms to create nearly 250 frames of stop-motion action.

'A Boy and His Atom' depicts a character named Atom who befriends a single atom and goes on a playful journey that includes dancing, playing catch and bouncing on a trampoline. Set to a playful musical track, the movie represents a unique way to convey science outside the research community.   

'Moving atoms is one thing; you can do that with the wave of your hand. 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. 'At IBM, researchers don’t just read about science, we do it. This movie is a fun way to share the atomic-scale world while opening up a dialogue with students and others on the new frontiers of math and science.'

The atoms were moved with an IBM-invented scanning tunneling microscope.  'This Nobel Prize winning tool was the first device that enabled scientists to visualise the world all the way down to single atoms,' said Christopher Lutz, research scientist at IBM Research.

'It weighs two tons, operates at a temperature of negative 268 degrees Celsius and magnifies the atomic surface over 100 million times. The ability to control the temperature, pressure and vibrations at exact levels makes our IBM Research lab one of the few places in the world where atoms can be moved with such precision.'

Remotely operated on a standard computer, IBM researchers used the microscope to control a super-sharp needle along a copper surface to 'feel' atoms. Only one nanometre away from the surface, which is a billionth of a metre in distance, the needle can physically attract atoms and molecules on the surface and thus pull them to a precisely specified location on the surface. The moving atom makes a unique sound that is critical feedback in determining how many positions it’s actually moved.

See how the movie was made here.


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