Between White House and Facebook, Peres Finds Time to Move Atoms at IBM

Not since Golda Meir has such a high-profile Israeli official visited Silicon Valley; at IBM’s development center, Peres showed surprising familiarity with cutting edge technology.

It was 9:30 AM, and the highways of California were filled with people on their way to another work day. But Route 101, which connects San Francisco Bay in the north to San Jose in the south, was empty of cars: People were standing at the side of the road, politely and patiently, and waiting for the convoy of Israeli President Shimon Peres to pass. Not since Golda Meir has such a high-profile Israeli official visited Silicon Valley.

A 40-minute ride is what lies separates the nervous system of the world’s leading innovation industry and IBM’s development center. After a short climb on a green hill, an isolated and seemingly innocent campus revealed itself. The gate was heavily secured, and it was difficult to tell what the compound stored. There were no signs, no logos, but here sat one of the leading research centers in Silicon Valley – if not in the entire world.

Peres - Reuters - March 6, 2012

Amid super-computers and electronic microscopes, IBM is actually engaged in theoretical research, the kind that few commercial companies allocate so many resources for.
When Michael Karasick, Vice President of IBM Research, was asked how long will it take for the research to develop into commercial products, he answered: “I have no idea. We don’t look at it that way. Our goal here is to be in the forefront of global research.”

So it is no wonder that Peres, who recently celebrated his 88th birthday, wished to visit the site. After years of focusing on the tedious “here and now,” Israel’s president let himself devote his resource to the long term.

Peres’ entourage made its way through the narrow halls of the research center, ending up at a small lab. The work of the two scientists in the lab can be summed up as the capability to move atoms – using a specialized needle, its tip the size of a single atom.
“We are the first place in the world that has succeeded in moving atoms,” said researcher Andreas Heinrich. “One day we will be able to minimize the memory of digital devices this way, or on the contrary, to expand memory by a factor of thousands.”

Peres showed interest. He asked about the single atoms’ electrical charges. He pointed at one of the colorful diagrams on the wall and asked the researches how the atoms can be electrically charged, and in doing so allow to inscribe digital data on them. The researchers were taken aback by Peres’ knowledge of the field.

Toward the end, the scientists ask Peres to move the atom himself, using the computer’s mouse. Peres, excited as a child, follows the orders. The image from the electronic microscope confirms the result: Peres has moved the atom. “Let me see you split it now,” says one of the people in the room, to which Peres answers: “What am I? Iranian?”