Forget Spielberg and intriguing plots. Forget Janusz Kaminski and state-of-the-art cinematography tools. No Dreamworks and sophisticated animation, or Walt Disney and charming characters either. All you got is a scanning tunnel microscope (STM) and a bunch of atoms. But what else would you need anyway to make a cartoon?
To explore the limits of data storage and film-making, a small group of IBM researchers made a short stop-motion “atom movie”, using an STM as their animation tool, and a handful of atoms as “actors”. Entitled A Boy And His Atom, the cartoon stars a boy (made out of actual atoms) who befriends an atom.
No, not Atom Ant. This is the 21st century. It is a real atom. A friendly one. So they play, they dance, and they have some fun. For 90 seconds. And that is all. No exciting plot, no eye-opening conclusion, or profound moral to take home. And definitely no fancy animation either. Perhaps, no kids would find worth watching it above the age of 4. Animation-wise it can not even come close to my favorite Commodore 16 games back in the ’80s, or to the minimalist champion animated series, La Linea. If I was to find its pair in contemporary art, I would pick Kraftwerk’s music video for Music non stop with its robot-like figures moving to the beats of the music. So what is it that makes this piece of atomic art so special?
Well, the facts of the making of the atom movie are quite astonishing, to start with. It took the team of 4 to create the 242 frames film two weeks, working an average 10-18 hours a day. Their “camera”, the STM, is a two-ton monster, Nobel prize winning device, that magnified the atoms to 100 million times of their actual size. They moved actual atoms frame by frame, and captured each arrangement to edit them into a cartoon. IBM’s STM artists thus created the world’s smallest movie (Guinness record), of which each frame is 50 atoms wide. To get an idea how tiny it is, a human hair is about 1 million atoms wide! “Small” redefined, isn’t it? And that leads to the real point and conclusion of IBM’s recent experiments in the field. In our current data storage technology a hard drive needs 1 million atoms to store one bit of information. However, their research produced a method that reduces that number to 12 atoms! That means, you would not be able to utilize the storage space on your smartphone, even if you wanted to carry all your favorite music, or movies with you!
IBM is not planning to make a series of the atom movie. But their piece of scientific art will surely draw the world’s attention to the boundless possibilities of the revolutionary data storage solution they have discovered.