IBM Engineers Pushed Individual Atoms Around to Make This Amazing Stop-Motion Movie

IBM was the first to draw with atoms, and now they’re making them dance

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

In November 1999, Don Eigler proved that man had truly mastered the atom: not by way of a devastating explosion or constrained reaction, but with art. The physicist, working for IBM, spelled out the company’s name using 35 individual atoms of the element xenon using a scanning tunneling microscope.

Now, scientists use scanning tunneling microscopes “for more than just imaging surfaces. Physicists and chemists are able to use the probe to move molecules, and even individual atoms, around in a controlled way,” says physicist Jim Al-Khalili in a 2004 book. Fourteen years ago, Don Eigler was the first person to do so, an achievement that helped to open the door on the then-nascent field of nanotechnology.

Don Eigler spelled out IBM’s logo using xenon atoms in 1999
Don Eigler spelled out IBM’s logo using xenon atoms in 1999 IBM

Now IBM is back, and with fourteen more years playing with these techniques, scientists have moved from precisely positioning individual atoms to making them dance. In a new short stop-motion film, A Boy and His Atom, scientists manipulated thousands of individual atoms to make the “world’s smallest movie.” The movie exists on a plane 100,000,000 times smaller than the world as we know and experience it. The boy and his ball are made from molecules of carbon monoxide, and yet gives an image reminiscent of the video games of the early 1980s.

“Though the technology that the team discusses isn’t new,” says the Verge, “they were able to use it in a new way: the black-and-white images and playful music form a strong artistic style that’s reminiscent of early film, but at an entirely different scale.”

For more information about how the movie was made, IBM has released a behind-the-scenes video to accompany their animation.

Moving Atoms: Making The World's Smallest Movie

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