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.”

Screen Shot 2013-05-12 at 12.32.34 PM

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

Screen Shot 2013-05-12 at 1.06.04 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2013-05-12 at 12.15.58 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2013-05-20 at 3.44.39 PM

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. []