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May 8, 2013

World’s Smallest Movie Has Big (Data) Implications

Nicole Hemsoth

A team of IBM researchers created the world’s smallest movie using the essential building-blocks of matter, atoms. The 242-frame Guinness-certified film, “A Boy and His Atom,” relies on stop-motion techniques and nearly 10,000 precisely placed atoms.

The atoms were magnified to over 100 million times and the film was made by moving actual atoms frame by frame using an IBM-invented scanning tunneling microscope. The instrument weighs 2 tons and operates at a temperature of -268 degrees Celsius.

The storyline follows the adventures of a character named Atom and his friend, a single atom. Together they go on a journey that includes dancing, playing catch and bouncing on a trampoline. An upbeat percussive soundtrack adds to the film’s overall quirkiness.

“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,” said Andreas Heinrich, Principle Investigator, IBM Research.

Scientists at IBM Research have been studying the nanoscale world for years as an inspiration for future processor and storage solutions. As computer circuits shrink to the beat of Moore’s Law, there is a certain point where they cannot get any smaller due to the limits of physics. Scientists are preparing for this eventuality – and it’s not that far off – when traditional techniques will no longer work. Experiments using magnetism and atoms on controlled surfaces have shown promising results.

Currently the atom is the smallest unit available for engineering data storage devices. The same research team that created this movie also developed the world’s smallest magnetic bit. They determined that it takes 12 atoms to reliably store one bit of magnetic information. As a comparison, storing a bit of data on a traditional computing device requires about 1 million atoms.

The commercial implications for this atom-sized breakthrough are epic. Storage systems based on atomic-scale memory would be able to store massive amounts of data in uniquely small footprint. Imagine if you could store every movie ever made on a device the size of a fingernail?