It's practically dogma in today's technological age that everything has to be smaller. It wasn't too long ago that you needed a backpack to carry your cellphone, and now one can almost fit inside your ear. But the next frontier is all about making things "nano" size -- devices so tiny that they're invisible to the naked eye. And we're telling you, this stuff is going to make the future seriously weird. Already we've got ...
6A Hard Drive Made from Only 12 Atoms
Conventionally, researchers make stuff smaller by taking the smallest thing we have already and seeing if they can shrink it a little bit. But IBM decided to just skip to the end and figure out what was the smallest possible thing that they could make work, starting with one goddamn atom. Eventually they wound up with a bit of computer memory storage constructed out of just 12 atoms:
That, or it's a picture of a black light sex toy. Our files aren't labelled especially well.
To put it in context, your iPod can hold around 10,000 songs, give or take. This thing is about a million times denser than an iPod hard drive. So if you equipped an iPod with a bunch of these, you could store around 10 billion songs, assuming that scaling it up to that size wouldn't, we don't know, create a supernova (the dangers of nanotechnology are poorly understood, at least by us). We can say that the researchers were able to stick eight of these together to create one byte of memory, so there's that.
This can store roughly 1/3rd of a nipple.
Otherwise, the only problem (despite the fact that no Chinese sweatshop kids have hands small enough to assemble them) is that right now this thing requires something called a scanning tunneling microscope to operate, which is a device that most people don't have readily on hand. The atoms also have to be kept incredibly cold, or else it opens up a rift in the space-time continuum or something.
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Keeping things cold to avert disaster is a field we have some experience in.
Either way, the experiment shows that data can be stored at a size way, way smaller than science once thought possible, so maybe we're not far from a smartphone so tiny that you could lose it forever with a hard sneeze.