An awesome animation of single atoms

I’ll be busy today, so talk among yourselves. In the meantime, here’s an animation created by moving carbon atoms around one by one with precise (and astounding) new technologies. As the BBC reports,

Researchers at IBM have created the world’s smallest movie by manipulating single atoms on a copper surface.

The stop-motion animation uses a few dozen carbon atoms, moved around with the tiny tip of what is called a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM).

It would take about 1,000 of the frames of the film laid side by side to span a single human hair.

The extraordinary feat of atomic precision has been certified by the Guinness Book of World Records.

The phenomenon apparently depents on quantum tunnelling, one of those biazrre things that occur on the quantum level (like the nonexistence of “local hidden variables”), that are completely nonintuitive and even defy explanation to someone who doesn’t know the math. Absent quantum tunnelling, we’d not only have cool animations like these (yes, those are apparently real atoms you’re seeing), but practical things like the microscope that visualized these atoms (the “scanning tunnelling microscope”) and tunnel diodes, used in some electronic devices.

Anyway, have a look:

The new movie, titled A Boy and His Atom, instead uses the STM, an IBM invention which garnered the scientists behind it the 1986 Nobel prize in physics.

The device works by passing an electrically charged, phenomenally sharp metal needle across the surface of a sample. As the tip nears features on the surface, the charge can “jump the gap” in a quantum physics effect called tunnelling.

The 242 frames of the 90-second movie are essentially maps of this “tunnelling current” with a given arrangement of atoms. It depicts a boy playing with a “ball” made of a single atom, dancing, and jumping on a trampoline.

“The tip of the needle is both our eyes and our hands: it senses the atoms to make images of where the atoms are, and then it is moved closer to the atoms to tug them along the surface to new positions,” explained Andreas Heinrich, principal investigator at IBM Research in California, US.

“The atoms hold still at their new positions because they form chemical bonds to the copper atoms in the surface underneath, and that lets us take an image of the whole arrangement of atoms in each frame of the film.

The movie studio for the world’s smallest film – under high vacuum and held incredibly cold

“Between frames we carefully move around the atoms to their new positions, and take another image,” he told BBC News.

The effort, detailed in a number of YouTube videos, took four scientists two weeks of 18-hour days to pull off.

h/t: SGM

24 Comments

  1. Posted May 2, 2013 at 4:17 am | Permalink

    Here’s a cool medical sci-tech story. A little girl got a stemcell trachea. She’s not the first, but she’s the youngest so far.

  2. Garnetstar
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    They’re actually molecules of carbon monoxide. What is visualized in the movie are the oxygen atoms.

  3. Marcoli
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    I was wondering why the background seems smooth. It too must be made of atoms. Is the image itself built from the scanning tunneling probe which detects each atom when in very close proximity to it? If so, then the smooth background is b/c the probe does not get close to the background so it looks smooth.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      The substrate is metallic copper, which is a conductor. That means the electrons in the outermost orbitals are not tightly bound to particular atoms but free to roam throughout the substrate. So the electric charge perceived by the probe is not localized but spread out smoothly across the background.

      The way these scanning-probe devices typically work is to move the probe up or down to keep the detected signal constant. So the quantity being measured is not the strength of the signal, but the height above the surface at which the detection threshold is met. So the result is a kind of topographic map of the surface, with individual atoms appearing as bumps sticking out from the background.

      That’s my understanding anyway.

      • Marcoli
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

        That seems pretty clear. Interesting detail is that the images show an interference pattern around each atom. Any ideas?

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted May 2, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

          I’m not an expert, but I imagine the presence of foreign atoms perturbs the spectrum of electronic energy levels in the surrounding metal, and the auras are an artifact of that.

          • Marcoli
            Posted May 2, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

            That seems reasonable. But why is it a static pattern of perturbed energy levels? At least it seems to be a static pattern…

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

              I assume that in the static patterns, that jumps from time to time, we see crystal defects and repositioning elsewhere on the substrate.

  4. Mary Canada
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    +1

  5. phillupino
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    So they’re really tiny billiard balls? And those concentric rings, are they the Bohr orbitals?

    • Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s diffraction of some kind.

      • Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        Or some kind of reaction in the substrate that’s making it wobble into the layer that’s being filmed.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      The tunneling current would interact mostly with the valence bands, which are delocalized rather than localized clouds (“Bohr orbitals” in more basic models).

      I refer to the comments under #3.

  6. Larry Gay
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    When I was teaching chemistry many decades ago a philosopher friend asked me how I knew there are atoms and molecules — an agonizing question for him. Rather than rehearse all the evidence, I simply said I can see them. This was a bit disingenuous, but technically speaking, quartz crystals are individual molecules according to some definitions of “molecule”. Now I wouldn’t have to be so cute. You can indeed see atoms and molecules! But what does “to see” mean?

    • Marcoli
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      As I vaguely understand it, we are not directly seeing the atoms. We are instead seeing a computer generated map of the distribution of their outermost electrons. Here the map is displayed as a pattern of ‘shiny’ looking bumps. Rendered in a side view, the map will look like tall spikes with blunt tips.
      I think this means we have not really ‘seen’ atoms, but their existence is strongly inferred.

      • phillupino
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

        Ah, now I remember seeing one of those 3D maps of spikes with blunt tips waving outward. Thanks.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

      Isn’t any size diamond in effect a single molecule?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      But we can see ions, if single ions blinking in ion traps are counted as images. I’m sure I have seen such images, meanwhile here are some integrated emission images:

      http://iopscience.iop.org/1367-2630/13/7/075018/fulltext/

      http://www.newscientist.com/articleimages/dn9502/1-flat-ion-trap-holds-quantum-computing-promise.html

  7. Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Big deal, every stop motion movie is made with atoms.

    (This is seriously amazing, I can’t keep the huge smile off my face.)

    • phillupino
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      I completely agree. Absolutly amazing. Thanks.

  8. Mark Joseph
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Gee, I wonder feats of theoretical or practical knowledge, or contributions to technology, creation “scientists” accomplished today?

  9. HaggisForBrains
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 2:31 am | Permalink

    This reminds me of the early computer games. I wonder if we’ll look back at this in 25 years’ time and laugh at how crude it seems.

  10. Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    Prof Coyne:

    Absent quantum tunnelling, we’d not only have cool animations like these (yes, those are apparently real atoms you’re seeing), but practical things like the microscope that visualized these atoms (the “scanning tunnelling microscope”) and tunnel diodes, used in some electronic devices.

    Typo alert: I think there is at least one “not” missing in that sentence (after the “not only”).

  11. Diane G.
    Posted May 4, 2013 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    sub


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