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Every day scientists around the world work to find the next big breakthrough to advance human capability, and each day they’re making new discoveries big and small. And for Andreas Heinrich, the principal investigator of the IBM atomic memory research team, his days are no different. Although in his case, he recently made a discovery that was both big and small—literally. He led a team that unlocked the potential of unlimited data storage using the smallest unit of measure known to man: atoms. We've previously shared a video about Heinrich's work, but it left our community wanting to know more, so we contacted Heinrich to further talk about his scientific discoveries.
“I have always been interested in tinkering with technology,” says Heinrich, who has been with IBM for 15 years. “It was either engineering or science for me when it came time to choose in university. That final decision was a gut one.” That decision has led Heinrich on a journey to uncover the possibilities of atomic research, and this past year, he and his team found a way to store one bit of data on just 12 magnetic atoms–the same amount of data that today’s disk drives need about one million atoms to store.
A huge advancement in the field of data storage, this discovery may allow nearly infinite data storage potential in future technology. And in an effort to share the importance of atomic memory widely, Heinrich decided to tackle a somewhat unusual project. He and three IBM researchers spent 18 hours a day for 10 days creating the world’s smallest movie, A Boy and His Atom, which was composed entirely from atoms.
Why focus his energy on a movie? “I have a strong belief in communicating to the general public in order to bring people back into the wonderment of science and technology,” says Heinrich. “[The movie] is the most amazing thing that humans have created to date, and a truly international affair.”
Moving individual atoms to create the individual frames for the movie’s animation, the team used a scanning tunneling microscope that Heinrich built, which, on its own, “took about one year to plan and design, and two years to build,” he says. The microscope functions at temperatures below minus 260 degrees centigrade, necessary to keep the atoms still, and allows the team to move individual atoms to the exact position needed to create the still images.
The movie has been viewed by millions of people around the world, and for Heinrich, it’s been an opportunity to call attention to the concept of atoms and atomic memory. He’s found the general public struggles with how atoms and research around them can be used, but it doesn’t deter him from his work. He only hopes the movie will get more students to study science and engineering.
After all, with atoms at the heart of everything, from molecules to biology, Heinrich says, “Without atoms there is nothing. Understanding how the world works at that atomic scale is crucial.”
To learn more about Heinrich and his team, and to keep up to date with their atomic memory research visit here.
Read more from leaders like Heinrich at Figures of Progress, including interviews with Matthew Stinchcomb, VP at Etsy, Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America; Adam Brotman, chief digital officer of Starbucks; Rachel Sterne, CIO of the city of New York; and Oliver Hurst-Hiller, CTO of Donorschoose.org.