IBM ‘scientist-artists’ display atomic masterpieces


Two images resulting from scientific work at IBM’s labs are part of an art exhibit at the United States Patent and Trademark Museum in Alexandria, Va. U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) Jon Dudas opened the agency’s new exhibit, “Art of Invention - Invention of Art,” which will run until next August. Co-creators are the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation (NIHFF) and USPTO. The exhibit features 70 works of art that emerged from inventions, patents, and trademarks.

While experimenting with materials that might comprise future computer chips and storage components, IBM scientists built beautiful structures out of individual atoms using a low-temperature Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) whose invention won IBM’s Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer a Nobel Prize in 1986. Two of the images created using the apparatus are featured in the show.

IBM scientists use their artistic side to depict confinement of electrons to quantum corrals on a metal surface.
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Now, 21 years after the Nobel Prize was awarded, public fascination with the STM continues as people are amazed by the ability to image and manipulate the world on the nanoscale. The two images on display are the result of work from IBM’s labs in the early 1990s, including The Quantum Corral. Driven by their discovery of the STM’s ability to image variations in the density distribution surface-state electrons on the surface of a metal, IBM scientists Michael Crommie, Chris Lutz, and Don Eigler built an electron’s “quantum state” to their own design. Here they have positioned 48 iron atoms into a circular ring in order to “corral” some surface-state electrons and force them into quantum states of the circular structure. The ripples in the ring of atoms are the wave patterns of some of the electrons that were trapped in the corral. The “artists” were thrilled to discover that they could quantitatively account for the behavior of the electrons by solving a classic problem in quantum mechanics-a particle in a hard-wall box.

To view even more images created using the STM, please visit

- Marcy Koff