Don't Miss The Premiere Of The World's Smallest Movie

May 1, 2013
Originally published on May 2, 2013 4:53 am

If only there was an Oscar for "Smallest Movie," a group of IBM nanophysicists would be a shoo-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.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Hollywood makes big movies like "Ironman 3" and smaller movies like "Beast Of The Southern Wild." But no one has ever seen a movie as small as the one just created by four scientists at IBM. It's called "A Boy And His Atom" and the team made it by moving around individual atoms on a surface cooled to minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

The image is 100 million times bigger than its actors. Our movie critic Bob Mondello has a special fondness for intimate stories, so we asked him to take a look.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The boy in "A Boy and His Atom" is a connect-the-dots figure 26 atoms tall and seriously slender, with a little James Dean-ish forelock that flops around when he jumps. His adventures here are only a minute long and there's no dialogue, so we don't get to know him very well, but he seems a playful sort, dancing a little jig and bouncing his pet atom against the side of the screen in a game I guess you'd have to call hand atom.

We also see him being cautious, testing an atom trampoline before he jumps on it and we see him be trusting enough to let his little pet atom fly up to the clouds when they're not playing together. He'd make a mother proud, assuming he has a mother. These scientist filmmakers, pioneers in subatomic cinema, have basically done what 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge did when he came up with the images of a galloping horse that, when strung together, gave the appearance of movement and led to motion pictures.

Their other chief influence appears to have been the early computer game, Pong. For cineastes who just can't get enough of "A Boy and His Atom" in one minute, they've created a four and a half minute Making Of video.

ANDREAS HEINRICH: Now the sound you hear is the sound of the molecule following the tip along the surface.

MONDELLO: And also some still images from what is presumably the boy's bedroom wall, a molecule-sized Starship Enterprise for one intriguing kid, boldly going where no atom has gone before. Here's hoping he makes many a sequel. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.