Animated Atom Boy!

by Nicholas Mee on May 9, 2013

The idea of atoms dates back to antiquity. In ancient times philosophers argued about the existence of these fundamental components of matter. They had little idea about the structure of atoms except that they were thought to be indivisible, and this was the origin of the word atom.

The Greek philosopher Demokritos who developed the concept of atoms around 2,400 years ago.

Ironically, the modern understanding of what we call atoms began at the end of the 19th century with the discovery of the first sub-component of an atom – a particle that we now know as the electron. In 1909, Rutherford discovered that the atom contains a dense nucleus that holds most of the mass of the atom. Rutherford demonstrated that the nucleus really is tiny. Compared to the size of an atom, it is like a marble in a huge volume the size of a large cathedral, such as St Peter’s in Rome.

But just how small is an atom?

Visiting the Nanoworld

The average distance between the electron and the nucleus that form a hydrogen atom is about one-twentieth of a nanometre. This gives us a rough figure for the diameter of a hydrogen atom of about one-tenth of a nanometre. The diameter of a carbon atom is about twice this size. Even the biggest atoms, such as gold atoms, are not much larger. The diameter of a gold atom is about three times the diameter of a hydrogen atom. But what does this mean in everyday terms?

Holding A Trillion Trillion

There are ten million nanometres in a centimetre: one hundred million carbon atoms in a line would stretch a distance of just two centimetres. In a cube with edges two centimetres long we could pack one hundred million, times one hundred million, times one hundred million carbon atoms. So a cubic block of carbon of this size, which we could easily hold between our fingers, whether it is a priceless diamond or just a humble piece of graphite, is composed of around one trillion trillion carbon atoms. As atoms do not vary that much in size, it is clear that a handful of any solid matter will contain somewhere in the region of a trillion trillion atoms. A trillion trillion is one followed by twenty-four zeros: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

The World’s Sharpest Needle

It used to be said that it would always be impossible to see pictures of atoms. At least, that is what I was told at school. But this was before 1981, when researchers Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer at IBM Zurich invented the device known as the scanning tunnelling microscope (STM). The STM maps out the contours of the electric fields around atoms with a resolution of about one-tenth of a nanometre. It is constructed around an extremely fine needle with a tungsten or gold tip that tapers down to a single atom. As the needle scans across a sample, an electronic feedback mechanism controls the position of the needle tip to a precision that is within a fraction of an atomic diameter. The needle scans the surface of the sample at different heights, and these measurements are fed into a computer, where three-dimensional rendering software is used to generate an image of the surface. The result is a remarkable picture that shows the positions of individual atoms on the surface.

‘Quantum Corral’, an image produced with a scanning tunnelling microscope. Image by M.F. Crommie, C.P. Lutz and D.M. Eigler, IBM Research Division, Almaden Research Center, California.

Seeing a World in a Grain of Sand

The STM can even be used to pick up and arrange individual atoms. The illustration shown above represents the electric fields of a ring of forty-eight iron atoms on a copper substrate. The iron atoms were individually placed in position with an STM. Each of the tall peaks corresponds to a single atom. Even more amazing is the distribution of the electron waves that can be seen between the ‘corral’ of atoms.

The IBM researchers were stunned by the beautiful images they were creating. ‘I could not stop looking at the images,’ said Binnig. ‘It was like entering a new world. This appeared to me as the unsurpassable highlight of my scientific career and, therefore, in a way, its end.’ Binnig and Rohrer were rewarded for their remarkable work with the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics.

IBM logo formed of 35 xenon atoms by Don Eigler.

In 1989, the astonishing capability of the STM to position individual atoms was used by another IBM employee, Don Eigler, to spell out the name of the company with thirty-five xenon atoms positioned on the surface of a nickel crystal, as shown in the illustration on the right.


Atom Boy

Now researchers at IBM have gone even further and produced an atomic scale animation produced with the STM.

Frame from A Boy and his Atom by IBM. (Click to view the full video.)

Click the following link to see this remarkable video clip:

A Boy And His Atom

 Further Information

This article is based on text from my book Higgs Force: Cosmic Symmetry Shattered. More information about the book is available here:


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