…The movie, entitled A Boy and His Atom, was made by precisely placing atoms to form 242 stop-motion frames that were used to create the animation. It is about 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. It’s not exactly riveting cinema, but that’s not the point.
“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, 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.”
Developed in 1981 by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer at IBM Zürich, the scanning tunneling microscope is based on the principle of quantum tunneling, which is an eye-wateringly confusing concept. Suffice it to say, it works on the fact that in quantum mechanics an electron is only “sort of” in any one place at any one time and may be somewhere else. This allows them to do things that should be impossible, like being on one side of an impenetrable barrier or gap and then show up on the other. It’s as if the electron just tunneled its way through, and hence the term “quantum tunneling.”
It’s in moving atoms that the team at IBM Almaden have made their innovation. The interaction between the probe and the atom is the same that controls chemical reactions. In other words, what makes one atom stick to another. This allows the scanning tunneling microscope to be used as a sort of quantum crane to pick up atoms and move them to exactly where the scientists want them to go.
For making the movie, they used a copper surface with the probe hovering one nanometer away. Atoms were picked up and arranged on the surface using a rather clever positioning method with the scientists listening to the atoms move. Since the microscope can’t move atoms and make images at the same time, the machine was designed to generate feedback noise as the atom moved, so the scientists would know when it shifts from one spot to the next. In this way, the atoms could be repositioned to build up the frames and create the animation.
There’s also blather about Moore’s Law – positioned to serve as a rationale for this clever “commercial”. John C. Dvorak and other curmudgeons long ago debunked that “Law” as self-fulfilling prophecy.
Still – the movie is cute and a clever example of the skill and capabilities of some atomic scientists and where we may go with the promise of this technology.