The video A Boy and His Atom is being watched around the world, making Boy and his German father Andreas Heinrich famous way beyond the confines of science.
Heinrich is principle investigator at IBM – a research rather than detective position. He leads the scanning probe microscopy project looking for possible data storage use of nanostructures. This resulted in the creation of the world’s smallest magnetic bits, made of just 12 magnetic atoms.
This answered the question of how many atoms it takes to reliably store one bit of magnetic information. Currently it takes about a million atoms to store a bit of data on a modern computer or electronic device. If commercialized, this atomic memory could one day store all of the movies ever made in a device the size of a fingernail.
And although when published in January 2012 in the journal Science, this excited those in the physics and computing world, it is only now that the work is receiving wider exposure – thanks to Boy.
In the film he makes friend with a single atom and ends up dancing, playing catch and bouncing on a trampoline with it.
“Capturing, positioning and shaping atoms to create an original motion picture on the atomic-level is a precise science and entirely novel,” said Heinrich in a statement.
“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 the IBM scanning tunnelling microscope, which weighs two tonnes, operates at fiercely cold -268C and magnifies the atomic surface more than 100 million times.
The researchers used it to move an extremely sharp needle along a copper surface to pull off individual atoms and take them to a specific spot. The scientists took 242 images and used them as frames for the animation.
“Research means asking questions beyond those required to find good short-term engineering solutions to problems. As data creation and consumption continue to get bigger, data storage needs to get smaller, all the way down to the atomic level,” said Heinrich.
“We’re applying the same techniques used to come up with new computing architectures and alternative ways to store data to making this movie.”