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Atomium bombs

The wasted potential of a civic structure

Calum MacKichan 27 May 2014

Missing links: detail from the structure

Is this the greatest missed opportunity in science communication history?

The Atomium glistens like an engagement ring to modernity placed on one of Brussels’ northern fingers. It is a gargantuan tribute to our smallest building blocks: atoms are represented by massive aluminium coated spheres joined together by the largest representations of chemical bonds probably ever created by mankind.

After you enter the basal atom, a lift whisks you to the top one – I imagine I’m an electron travelling from atom to atom like an electric current.

From the top we enjoy views across the urban sprawl of Belgium’s capital, but I still have questions. Why did they build this? How? I am in inside a massive metallic atom, tell me more. I’m hoping for protons, neutrons, and electrons. I’m hoping for the abstractions of physics and chemistry to be demystified in front of me.

I traverse the tunneled shafts to be confronted by three wooden kitchen chairs illuminated apologetically, apparently confused as to how they got there in the first place. Beside them is a non-descript white wooden bench with an information panel telling me fascinating facts such as “The bench may be dismantled, and can be used indoors or out. It is made of solid wood or MDF”.

I am inside an exhibition detailing the recent history of Belgian chair design.

Now, I’m not disputing the cultural or practical relevance of Belgian chair design. Belgians need chairs and someone has to design them. Their work should be recognized and their knowledge passed on to Belgium’s chair designers of the future. I support this process fully. But the question of how this might happen was really quite a long way from my consciousness when I excitedly hopped up the last chemical bond and into this atom.

Somehow, someone has contrived to take one of the most daring architectural creations of last century, representing of the most fundamental aspects of our universe, and filled it with the most inane set of exhibits imaginable.

The truth is that only a passing reference is made to the fact we are in atoms at all. These may as well be apples joined together by a mesh of pens and pencils. I wonder, is this the greatest missed opportunity in science communication history?

There are so many questions to ask. How do atoms build our world? What is a chemical bond? How many real atoms are in one mega Atomium atom?

Perhaps the curators believe that these questions are simply not interesting enough to the general public. If this is true it is a sad condemnation of how we perceive the public’s interest in our world. What better way to explain a chemical bond than when you are standing inside one? Understanding how our world is built for the first time could one of the most exhilarating moments of someone’s education, young or old.

It may not be a coincidence that this monument stands in a city of politicians, who practice a vocation that too often pays lip service to science as a sexy shiny thing, but on closer inspection their words are merely hollow bubbles of hot air devoid of any purpose or meaning.

The only way for that to change would be for a greater scientific appreciation in society at large, and if we miss chances such as this one then we could be waiting a long time.

At least we’ll be seated comfortably.

Other articles by Calum MacKichan