A recent book argues that playfulness lies at the heart of research in nanotechnology. Colin Milburn's excellent Mondo Nano: Fun and Games in the World of Digital Matter explores the unexpectedly deep-rooted relationship between game-playing and nano-scale experimentation. To make the point, Milburn begins with a discussion of the world's smallest film:
“It’s fun to play with atoms. At least, this is the message of a short film called A Boy and His Atom, created in 2013 by a team of scientists at the IBM Almaden Research Center in California. Working together with professional animators and designers, the scientists used the tools and techniques of nanotechnology to produce a motion picture at the atomic scale.
Lauded by Guinness World Records as “The World’s Smallest Stop-Motion Film,” A Boy and His Atom represents the frame-by-frame animation of individual carbon monoxide molecules.
With the help of their scanning tunneling microscopes, the scientists maneuvered these molecules into discrete, pointillistic images on a copper surface. The images were then assembled in sequence to tell a story—a little bit of fiction made from little bits of matter… The film is an invitation, an alluring spectacle aimed at recruiting young people into the exciting fields of molecular science and innovation.”
The short film at once presents and results from technical research at the nanoscale—the domain of individual atoms and molecules. According to Milburn, the film captures the ways in which research in nanotechnology emerges as a form of play. [The film] suggests that having a good time with the fundamental building blocks of matter “opens up strange and wonderful new vistas of technoscientific possibility.”
Milburn's study is a brilliant, expansive, and eye-opening read.
Colin Milburn is Gary Snyder Chair of Science and Humanities at UC Davis