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Atoms star in ball-bothering boffins' Big Blue movie

Bantam blockbuster boy bewilders Reg bloke

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Vid IBM Research has proved its worth by moving atoms across a screen to create the world's smallest movie. Big Blue has gone much better with its atomic animation A Boy and His Atom.

The movie has 242 frames and lasts just under 100 seconds; any more and it would rapidly become turgidly boring, in your humble hack's opinion. Each frame shows a picture made using little silvery balls, which are individual atoms placed into position by IBM's scanning tunnelling microscope to depict a small boy in various attitudes.

They used this microscope to control a probe one nanometer away from the surface of what would become each movie frame, moving the atoms to their desired locations in each frame to make up a complete shot. Big Blue's researchers then took a picture of each frame, threading 242 of those pictures together to make up the complete movie.

IBM says its ball-prodding boffins used 10,000 atoms to make their miniscule movie, which we have embedded here for the delight and delectation of Reg readers:

In fairness to Big Blue, when all you have to work with are silvery balls set against a grey background, your options are somewhat limited.

IBM is almost winsome in its description of the movie's plot: "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."

Okay, but why bother?

Andreas Heinrich, a principal investigator at IBM Research in Almaden, has a canned bit of quotery for the masses: “Capturing, positioning and shaping atoms to create an original motion picture on the atomic-level is a precise science and entirely novel. 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."

IBM also blathers on about how atomic scale storage, with just 12 atoms needed to reliably store one bit, could solve the world's data storage problems. At present, though, the equipment needed to write to these 12 atoms happens to be a 2-ton scanning tunnelling microscope operating at -268°C. Something usable might come from this boffinry - eventually.

View a five-minute video about making the Boy and His Atom movie here. ®

Bootnotes

1. The Internet Movie Database has not yet decided whether to list this epoch-defining classic.

2. Tiny movie star Tom Cruise has yet to deny rumours that he'll play the lead in IBM's next atomic-scale flick, Mission Impossible 6: Molecular Man.

3. Feminist organisations are picketing Almaden and saying they want to see "A Girl and Her Atom", saying there shouldn't be any gender bias in atomic-scale IT.

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