Tiny Toon: IBM Makes a Movie Out of Atoms

Thinking inside the box in a way…


A Boy and His Atom is less than 90 seconds long. It doesn’t have much of a plot, or any big laughs. And the animation is rudimentary — it’s monochromatic, blocky and generally reminiscent of the graphics I programmed on my Radio Shack TRS-80 computer in 1978, only not quite as fancy.

And yet IBM’s new cartoon — yes, IBM made a cartoon — is remarkable. It was produced at IBM Research’s Almaden Research Center in Northern California, by a bunch of scientists who used a scanning tunneling microscope as their animation tool. The pixels are individual atoms, nudged into place to form a picture. (The Guinness folks have certified this as the smallest movie ever made.)

IBM has been playing around with individual atoms for a long time: two of its Zurich-based researchers invented the scanning tunneling microscope in 1981 and won the Nobel Prize in Physics for it in…

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