Atoms to Art

About three weeks ago, IBM announced it had made the world’s smallest movie. Scientists at its research facility in San Jose used a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to drag several score of carbon monoxide molecules around on a super-cooled copper surface.1 250 frames of stop-motion action were recorded to create a short film called “A Boy and His Atom.”2 According to IBM’s press release, the movie – set to a playful soundtrack –  “depicts a character named Atom who befriends a single atom and goes on a playful journey that includes dancing, playing catch and bouncing on a trampoline.”

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Image from IBM’s atomic film.

Given the movie’s low resolution, I think the film could (and should) have just as easily been called “A Girl and Her Atom” which would have been a lot cooler…what better way to say that women are welcome in science and this all isn’t just about boys and their toys (and their atoms)??

Anyway – This was not the first time that researchers from IBM made international headlines with their STM skills. In 1979, Heinrich Rohrer (who passed away last week) and Gerd Binnig, two scientists at an IBM lab in Zurich, began work on developing the STM.3 After Binnig and Rohrer announced their results in 1982, a flood of publications about the new instrument’s capabilities appeared in specialist journals. Meanwhile, continued improvements provided the basis for hundreds of patents as entrepreneurial researchers commercialized the STM. Within a few short years, the STM and its variants became ubiquitous instruments in labs and factories around the world. 4 In 1986, Binnig and Rohrer shared the Nobel prize in physics for their work.

During the 1990s, the STM became a poster child for nanotechnology. This was partly due to the fact that researchers soon realized they could use the instrument to not just image atoms but also to move them around. In late 1989, at the same IBM lab where “A Boy and His Atom” was later made, Donald Eigler and Erhard Schweizer sprayed a carefully prepared nickel substrate chilled by liquid helium with xenon vapor. By bringing the STM tip close to the sample, they learned how to slide and drop individual xenon atoms. In their demonstration of the ability to “fabricate rudimentary structures of our own design,” they precisely placed 35 xenon atoms on a small piece of nickel, cooled to almost absolute zero and held under an ultra-high vacuum, to make an IBM logo just three billionths of a meter long.5

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Xenon atoms used to spell IBM; from the 1989 paper by Eigler and Schweizer

Moving atoms around and putting them precisely where one wanted was exciting and newsworthy. Engineering at the nano-scale, as The New York Times described it, was not only potentially technologically ground-breaking but a downright nano-adventure.6 IBM’s nanoscale logo became one of the most iconic scientific images of the 1990s, the original Nature article announcing the feat was cited hundreds of times, and STM-generated images took a place at the intersection of scientific experimentation and artistic expression.

Eigler and Schweizer’s work coincided with the media’s growing interest in nanotechnology and their technical tour de force brought widespread attention to lab-based nanotechnology. The timing was key. “Nanotechnology” was trying to emerge from the shadow of Eric Drexler’s more radical (and biologically based) version of nanotech associated with self-replicating nanoscale “assemblers” that would build things molecule by molecule with atomic precision. The STM would become one of the innovations touted to Congress when researchers and science managers began to lobby the Clinton administration for what became the multi-billion dollar National Nanotechnology Initiative.

IBM’s latest nanoscale accomplishment connects back to this earlier history in two notable ways. First, the original impetus for developing the STM in the first place was the search for improved computer technologies.7 “A Boy and His Atom” was made as part of IBM’s larger effort to explore the limits of data storage. In 2012, the company successfully demonstrated the ability to store information in as few as 12 magnetic atoms.8 The image below shows a magnetic byte imaged 5 times in different magnetic states to store the ASCII code for each letter of the word THINK, IBM’s corporate mantra.

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But the second and far more interesting parallel is the use of the STM to create images in the first place. Here art of a sort serves as evidence of technological virtuosity. Eigler and Schweizer’s image was reproduced scores of times in the 1990s to make the point that researchers could manipulate and precisely position atoms. In some interpretations, this was seen as the first step toward being able to fabricate things from the atomic scale upwards.9 Researchers at other labs, meanwhile, used the STM to draw all sorts of other images. More than two decades later, IBM’s researchers again chose to showcase their acumen known via carefully constructed images – in this case about 250 of them strung together to make a short movie. The very last frames of the film again show “IBM” spelled out, perhaps in homage to Eigler and Schweizer’s earlier work.

Doing art with atoms became one way of showing what a nano-future might be like (or at least trying to make it more comprehensible to non-experts). In 2003-2004, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art sponsored an exhibit called nano. According to the book that came out in conjunction with LACMA’s show,the exhibit’s focus was the “idea of scale intrinsic to nanotechnology” with exhibits designed to give visitors “experiences suggestive of what it would be like to be a nanoparticle” and so forth.10 The LACMA show – with its focus on scale and the relationship of size to ordinary human experience – calls the famous 1977 film Powers of Ten by Ray and Charles Eames to mind.

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Scene from the 1977 film Powers of Ten

It’s easy to see how IBM’s short film – amazing but also a little gimmicky – links different attempts by Big Blue to build improved computer and data storage techniques. But I think we can also see this short film sitting on the fringe of a bigger and more important project. In the past year, the “STEM to STEAM” movement has gained some momentum in the academic community and in conjunction with the NSF. Like the LACMA exhibit, the STEAM movement hopes to foster collaborations between scientists, artists, and humanists. Besides highlighting the difficulties and rewards of interdisciplinary collaboration, cooperative efforts like STEAM can help show nanotechnology (or other areas of research) as cultural and social products as well as technoscience done solely for academic credit or corporate rewards. I’m not saying IBM’s stunt itself heralds some bold new era of interaction between different communities…but continued, deeper, and more thoughtful efforts like this could yield valuable dividends for scientists and humanists. Maybe playing around with atoms could be a start toward something bigger.

  1. The copper 111 crystal plane was used; IBM chose copper because that element, in combination with carbon monoxide, provides a stable materials combination. []
  2. It already has a Wikipedia entry. []
  3. Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, “Scanning Tunneling Microscopy: From Birth to Adolescence,” Reviews of Modern Physics, 1987, 59, 3: 615-25. Rather than the lenses and mirrors a traditional optical microscope uses to produce an image, the new microscope used a sharp tip to probe the surface of a metal or semiconductor sample. By creating a voltage difference between the probe tip and the sample and then bringing the tip very close to the sample, some electrons would “tunnel” between the two. If Binnig and Rohrer moved their probe tip back and forth over the sample’s surface, they could measure the changing strength of the tunneling current. Then, by keeping the current constant and continuing to scan with the probe tip, they could capture and convert the electrical signal to produce an atomic-scale image of a sample’s surface. []
  4. My colleague, Cyrus Mody at Rice University has written an excellent – and prize-winning – history of the STM called Instrumental Community: Probe Microscopy and the Path to Nanotechnology (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011)…highly recommended! []
  5. D. M. Eigler and E. K. Schweizer, “Positioning Single Atoms with a Scanning Tunnelling Microscope,” Nature, 1990, 344, 6266: 524-26; Malcolm W. Browne. “2 Researchers Spell ‘IBM,’ Atom by Atom.” The New York Times, April 5, 1990, B11. []
  6. Eigler’s own lab notebook entry for one experiment in February 1990, “Success at pick up…Success at put down…I am really having fun!” Others could learn how to do this feat as well. One reporter described how, with Eigler coaching him, he managed to nudge a few atoms about. Charles Siebert. “The Next Frontier: Invisible.” The New York Times Magazine, September 29, 1996, 1996, 137. []
  7. Binnig and Rohrer were looking to find a way to better characterize thin superconducting films as part of IBM’s long-running program to build a supercomputer using Josephson junctions. As Cyrus Mody relates, by the early 1980s, IBM was spending about $20 million a year on the program and had about 150 people working on it. []
  8. From the press release; this involved using an STM and a “grouping of twelve antiferromagnetically coupled atoms that stored a bit of data for hours at low temperatures. Taking advantage of their inherent alternating magnetic spin directions, they demonstrated the ability to pack adjacent magnetic bits much closer together than was previously possible. This greatly increased the magnetic storage density without disrupting the state of neighboring bits.” []
  9. To be fair, Eigler himself noted, atom-manipulation-via STM remained a “laboratory tool,” not a “manufacturing tool.” The carefully-prepared crystals on which xenon and other atoms were so delicately placed had to be cooled close to absolute zero, hardly the conditions for assembly line production. []
  10. This is described in N. Katherine Hayles, ed. Nanoculture: Implications of the New Technoscience (Portland, OR: Intellect Books, 2004). Some of the most remarkable parts of the LACMA show was “nano-mandala” an art/science project by Victoria Vesna, a media artist, and James Gimzewski, a nanoscientist; both are professors at UCLA. []

Making Scientific Americans

(Prefatory note: In October 2011, I gave a talk at the annual meeting of the History of Science Society. Some material from this talk was included in The Visioneers. Other parts had to be cut. But a recent newspaper article motivated me to go back for another look…)

Screen Shot 2013-05-07 at 4.49.42 PMA new popular science magazine recently appeared. Nautilus is “about science and its endless connections to our lives.” Appearing quarterly – subscriptions are $49 – each issue is devoted to a “single story told by the world’s leading thinkers and writers” that “combines the sciences, culture and philosophy.”

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The first “issue” of Nautilus

Funded with monies from the Templeton Foundation, Nautilus is positioning itself as a “New Yorker version of Scientific American.” Although designed to be accessed primarily on-line, a few print copies of the first issues are available. Dennis Overbye described one as having “thick, color pages” with the “production values of a corporate report.”

The appearance of such a luxurious new publication devoted to popularizing science, stimulating the imagination, and mixing fiction with non-fiction immediately brings to mind a much earlierbut similar venture – Omni magazine.

(Confession: As a teenager, I loved Omni. I had a subscription for years. One of the great things about writing The Visioneers was to have an excuse to go back and re-read old issues.)

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Omni’s inaugural issue

Soft-core pornography magnate Bob Guccione launched Omni in the fall of 1978. Guccione said he never wanted to be a pornographer. Peddling porn was to just a way to pay for his first love, art. Nonetheless, Guccione’s X-rated publication Penthouse made him splendidly rich. Guccione magazine, with its muckraking journalism and images that left nothing to the imagination, enticed millions of readers each month. Penthouse also made the millions of bucks that enabled Guccione and his partner Kathy Keeton, a self-made South African ballerina turned exotic dancer, to start Omni.

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Guccione and Keeton, 1993. From Getty Images.

Omni’s appearance coincided with average citizens’ “acute need to know more about science and technology” in the mid-late 1970s.1 Dozens of new science and technology magazines, newspaper sections, and TV shows about science and technology appeared. Omni differed from these other publications that made up the bubble in popular science publishing and broadcasting. Omni wasn’t a direct competitor to “establishment” publications like Scientific American or shows like NOVA but existed in a class of its own. Instead it was more of a “para-scientific” publication that reported on recent developments in science and technology but for a non-elite audience.2

The “para” prefix also suggests transgression and subversion. This is fitting for a magazine that covered transgressive paranormal “science” – UFOs, ESP, parapsychology, Bigfoot, and so forth… as well as conventional stories about science and technology. Seen from this perspective, the outside-the-mainstream topics that Omni presented bear a similarity to books like The Tao of Physics which bridged western science with eastern mysticism, a topics Dave Kaiser has presented so nicely in his How the Hippies Saved Physics book.

If Omni depicted the future, the future was going to be very good looking. Guccione spared little expense for his new publication. Full-color illustrations filled entire pages and issues regularly featured gorgeous photographic essays with scientific or technological themes. Guccione and Keeton even developed a special sans-serif font for their new publication which added to its sleek, futuristic look.

But who were the “scientific Americans” Bob Guccione wanted to reach? Omni appealed strongly to the classic baby-boomer demographic – 18 to 34 year old, mostly single men, people with considerable disposable income. According Ben Bova, science-fiction writer and former Omni editor, told me “We liked to think of our typical reader as someone who reads the Sunday New York Times. Up-scale, financially and educationally.”

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Typical Omni advert, 1978

The magazine’s advertising reflected its demographic target. Every issue featured sophisticated pitches for high-end foreign cars and the latest in consumer electronics such as digital watches and the first compact disk players. Many of the companies who bought space in Omni developed advertisements designed to reach the magazine’s future oriented readers. And, of course, there were Omni’s pervasive pitches for cigarettes and top-shelf liquors. Out of this mélange, we can construct an image of the Omni reader: a mostly-masculine consumer, a sophisticated, tech-savvy, and open-minded person comfortable with computers, intrigued by space exploration, and interested in the latest news from the borderlands of “science-faction.”

But where earlier publications like CoEvolution Quarterly and the Whole Earth Catalog had stressed frugality and pragmatism, magazines like Omni presented a hedonistic view of the future made shiny and sexy by technology. Instead of self-composting toilets and woods stoves, one finds advertisements for home electronics and European sports cars sprinkled amidst stories about personal ultra-light aircraft and space tourism. Both Whole Earth and Omni promoted lifestyles fashioned by technology with a bit of escapism thrown in. But where Whole Earth reflected readers’ aspirations for individual self-sufficiency, Omni linked corporate-based technical innovation to personal fulfillment and financial success. Put more simply – hippies versus yuppies.

Besides presenting popular science discoveries, Omni crossed borders into areas that more mainstream magazines like Scientific American wouldn’t touch. Its articles often straddled the borders of fiction and fact. Deeply curious about the paranormal, Guccione and Keeton made sure that each issue included articles about fringey things like psychics, the Loch Ness Monster, and UFOs. Scientific research on life extension, as well as cryonics, also piqued their interest.

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Omni piece on life-extension research

Omni’s paranormal coverage reflected public skepticism about mainstream science (or at least scientific experts), a desire to consider alternative ways of thinking about nature, and hint of conspiracy theory, themes which would be continued in the 1990s by popular shows like The X-Files.

Interviews with iconoclastic researchers were another regular feature – Freeman Dyson, John Lilly (known for studying sensory deprivation and dolphin-human communication), futurist Alvin Toffler, and physicist Richard Feynman all appeared in Omni’s first year.

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Freeman Dyson, interviewed for Omni’s first issue

Omni’s fiction proved another big attraction for readers. In 1978, Guccione recruited veteran science-fiction author and editor Ben Bova to Omni. Bova attracted a cohort of writers who wrote about science, technology, and alternate realities without resorting to worn sci-fi tropes. Several of them, people such as William Gibson, became award-winning authors after appearing in Omni. Bova wanted to bring sci-fi writing to a broader audience and many of Omni’s fictional pieces – which were oddly dystopian for such a techno-optimist magazine – addressed the same technological topics that appeared in its non-fiction essays.

Bubbles collapse. By the mid-1980s, quite a few of the new high-profile science publications had gone dark. Omni, however, survived, in part, because its stories were not just about “science qua science” but also touched on sex, politics, and the unconventional. Omni maintained its format, topical focus, and modern look largely unchanged until print publication ended in 1996. By the time Omni expired though, its  look and focus were out of touch with the new cyber-times. Ironically, for a magazine that was about futuristic technologies, Omni didn’t survive the transition to web-based publishing.

In its best years, Omni offered a novel “publishing space” where borders between mainstream and fringe and science and the occult were broached, blended, and blurred. Omni was therefore a venue for both popularizing science (“science for the people”) as well as vehicle for popular science (“science of the people” – that is to say topics closely connected to its readers’ interests).3 I see Omni as part of a longer trend of science communication shaped by entertainment values. As a result, Omni helped create a different kind of “scientific American,” one who saw an interest in science and technology of all stripes as something that was as much about a lifestyle as it was about edification. I’m very curious to see how the new Nautilus effort positions itself in this regard.

Guccione and Keeton once had buttons printed for its readers which said “The meek will inherit the earth. The rest of us will go to the stars.” The future turned out differently of course…the new “scientific Americans” didn’t go to outer space but to cyber-space instead. But along the way they read and enjoyed Omni.

  1. Arlie Schardy. “The Science Boom.” Newsweek, September 17, 1979, 104. []
  2. Sarah Kaplan and Joanna Radin, “Bounding an Emerging Technology: Para-Scientific Media and the Drexler-Smalley Debate About Nanotechnology,” Social Studies of Science, 2011, 41, 4: 1-29. []
  3. Jonathan R. Topham, “Introduction – Historicizing Popular Science,” Isis 2009 100, 2: 310-318. []

“The Place They Do Imagineering”

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Disney’s logo for its Imagineering division; source: Wikipedia

[Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series; it follows up with a story I began in my last post. My thanks to Ray Macauley for sharing the documents referenced here.]

After reading Carl Sagan’s March 1976 essay, NASA head James Fletcher told the scientist he would try to find some way to commemorate Robert Goddard’s Anniversary Day. About 5 months later, Herbert J. Rowe, an associate administrator for NASA’s external affairs for NASA, told Sagan about a new award the space agency was planning. In his letter, Rowe included a proposal for the “Goddard Imagineering Award.”

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Rowe’s Reply to Carl Sagan

Recipients of the new award would be “strong willed individuals pursuing innovative concepts.” It would favor the “past year’s most imaginative/innovative achievement in furthering the end objectives of the nation’s aerospace effort” and be open to contributions from people including “science, management, and engineering…They need not be from the aerospace community.” Besides the recognition, honorees would get $1,776 (the award would be initiated during the U.S.’s Bicentennial year.) The timing of the plan makes sense – the Apollo era was fading away and the space agency was keen to find its next big mission, especially in the realm of human spaceflight.

There’s a short backstory here about “imagineers”: In the histories of technology, there are individuals who have had a clear and strong vision of an expansive future created by technologies they studied, designed, and promoted. Pushing beyond hand-waving and podium speculations, their activities sometimes resulted in actual things like prototypes, models, patents, and computer simulations. Just as importantly, these people also built communities and networks so they could connect their ideas for the technological future to interested citizens, writers, politicians, and business leaders. Visioneer is the portmanteau I used to describe these people. But the term I originally wanted to use was “imagineer.”

It sounds funny now – and I live in California which makes it that much more embarrassing – but I didn’t know this was a job category at the Walt Disney Corporation. Imagineers at Disney are the people who do the design and development of the company’s theme parks. My wife, a medievalist in possession of a better sense of pop culture than me, broke the bad news so I cast about for a different term. Hence, visioneer. In the end, it worked better.

However, as it turns out, the folks at Disney weren’t the first to use “imagineering.” In February 1942, Time magazine carried an advertisement for Alcoa, the Pittsburgh-based aluminum company. Titled “The Place They Do Imagineering,” the ad’s text reads in part: “It takes a very special word to describe making aluminum cheap, making it versatile, finding totally new places to use it, and then helping people use it where they should…Imagineering is letting your imagination soar, and then engineering it down to earth.” Pretty close to what I meant by visioneers, in other words…

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 1.39.40 PMI haven’t yet located any more information on what Sagan said in response to Rowe. And, from what I can tell thus far, NASA’s “imagineering” award itself never saw realization. Perhaps NASA didn’t want to tangle with Disney on this one. But…there are at least two awards now named after Goddard, including the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy. This is given annually since 1958 by the National Space Club; this year it went to the Curiosity/Mars Science Laboratory team.

I’d like to think that if NASA had actually instituted the “Goddard Imagineering Award”, one of its early recipients might have been physicist Gerard O’Neill. Like Goddard, O’Neill had an expansive vision of how the humanization of space might be done and the long-term effects that space settlements might have. Like Goddard, O’Neill coupled his imagination to real-world engineering and design. As it turns out, in 1986 O’Neill did receive a somewhat similar award. This was named after a different Robert – science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein.

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Robert A. Heinlein Memorial Award; this one was given to Burt Rutan.

O’Neill’s trophy is still in the basement of his Princeton home but will soon be going to the National Air and Space Museum. But, more than anything, Rowe’s proposal is intriguing beyond his conceptualization of imagineering as a necessary ingredient in fostering innovative thinking. It makes me wonder what sorts of people might have received such an award. Open to people from outside NASA’s circle, perhaps the “Goddard Imagineering Award” might have gone to an artist, musician, or poet. Given that O’Neill, a physicist, eventually won an award named after a fiction writer, this would have made nice symmetry. One can only imagine.