Sunday, April 3, 2011

Tricking the Atomic Genie

This 1957 video by Walt Disney was produced in parallel with a book titled "Our friend, the atom."  It was translated into Italian and I perfectly remember having read it when I was, maybe, ten years old. Still today, half a century later, the imagery of the book is with me. When I think of atoms, electrons are blue and protons red, as they were drawn in that book.

"Our friend, the atom" was full of optimism and of hope for the wealth and prosperity that the atomic age would bring to us. It is a shock, today, to look back to those times and realize how much it had been promised and how little was actually delivered. Go to minute 4:40 of the film and watch the story of the Fisherman and the Genie. How naive it was to think that we could trick nature so easily! Our greatest mistake has always been to think that we are smarter than nature.

The clip shown here is the first of a 5-parts series. To see the whole movie, go to and type "our friend the atom" in the search box. Clip n. 5 is especially interesting as it shows animations of what were thought to be the actual benefits that atomic energy would bring to us.


  1. You might be interested in looking at this site, it has to do with system dynamics modeling and climate science, and they could use some physical chemists...:

  2. Thanks, Anonymous. Another extremely interesting site I knew nothing about. The internet is huge and full of things - the problem is that the size of our heads stays the same......

  3. Here is a comment received by "Engineer Poet" - for some reason it didn't pass through, so I am posting it for him.

    The use of the solar corona time-lapse in the cartoon is an interesting touch. It suggests that nuclear fission is the power of the stars (not quite right, but not terribly far off either).

    I'm not sure what promises haven't been delivered. Nuclear binding energy to useful work has been done, as has the creation of artificial radioisotopes for e.g. medical and industrial use. We take these things for granted. The nuclear aircraft idea was tested, but cheap fuel and the ICBM made it unnecessary at the time. Radiological tracers are widely used in research. Nuclear-powered spaceflight was put off mostly because of paranoia and the loss of vision for exploration. To the extent that we haven't received the potential offered, most of it is because we have refused to take it.

    Politics isn't obliged to accept what nature allows.  Italy voted to eliminate nuclear power.  Natural-gas interests in the USA are lobbying to shut down a number of plants.  There's a lot of human factors here, and we should not blame them on the technologists.  The fault, Brutus, is not in our star-powers, but in ourselves.

  4. Yes, EP, indeed the fault is not in the atoms. It is in us!

  5. The atom can be our friend!

    Check out the research in Low-energy nuclear reactions: Nuclear power from the hydrogen in water!
    No radioactive materials involved.

    It's a technology that gives humanity a second chance.




Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017