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World's smallest movie: IBM uses individual atoms to make record-breaking short film

Film fans take note; Tom Cruise is no longer the world’s shortest movie star.

That honour must now surely go to ‘boy’ – the star of a new film made by IBM researchers, which uses a small cluster of atomic particles to create a record-breaking stop-motion animation.

It would take over 1000 frames of the animation to even span the width of a human hair, leading to ‘A Boy and his Atom’ being named the Guinness Book of Records’ ‘Smallest Ever Stop-Motion Film’.

The 90-second film was created using just a few dozen carbon atoms, moved around a copper surface by an electrically charged, two-tonne machine known as scanning tunnelling microscope. The film forms the centrepiece of IBM’s move into creating data storage out of single atoms.

Each frame of the short film - which shows a boy dancing, throwing a ball and jumping on a trampoline - measures just 45 nanometres by 25 nanometres. To get some perspective on exactly how small that is; there are around 25 million nanometres in an inch, and to make them visible to the human eye, each frame must be magnified 100 million times.

The film is accompanied by minimalistic music and sound effects which, when combined with the incredibly simplistic footage, gives the overall impression of early video game.

Andreas Heinrich, IBM's principal scientist for the project, said this is the first time anything so small has been manipulated to tell a story.

He said: “This movie is a fun way to share the atomic-scale world… The reason we made this was not to convey a scientific message directly, but to engage with students, to prompt them to ask questions.”

On the subject of the film being created at a temperature of -268C, Heinrich said: “The cold makes life simpler for us…The atoms hold still. They would move around on their own at room temperature.”

Comparing the film to IBM’s data storage plans, Heinrich said: “As data creation and consumption continue to get bigger, data storage needs to get smaller, all the way down to the atomic level”

He added: “Even nanophysicists need to have a little fun… In that spirit, the scientists moved atoms by using their scanning tunnelling microscope to make… a movie.”

Online Editors