Apr 17 2012: Two Illustrations Showing the Atom and its Nucleus from The Boys’ Book of Radio, Television and Radar (Burke, 1957)

Following yesterday’s sequence of advertising pages from Atomics Magazine (1956) these two images cut to the heart of what all that hardware was in pursuit of: the latent power of the atom itself and its nucleus, as expressed through Einstein’s E equals MC squared equation (surely one of very few equations to be known outside the specialist realm of physics itself). Yet it’s not only the sense of these two plates showing the otherwise invisible source of nuclear power that gives them a charge: their forms are also quintessentially modernist, and the shapes made by these two plates had a huge effect on design and aesthetics during the early Cold War era, with ‘molecular’ clocks and coat-hangers, ‘atomic’ fabric designs, graphics and much else besides, becoming visual signatures of the 1950s. That their aesthetically pleasing shapes are combined with a darker resonance in an era after Hiroshima, when weapons built on their potential destructive force were being stockpiled on both sides of the Iron Curtain, ensures that the image of the atom has a genuine ambivalence, embodying an ideal of progress and scientific advancement simultaneously with a threat of absolute devastation of all progress achieved to date. That the fear of nuclear weapons has declined since 1989, despite the stockpiles of weaponry largely remaining, and the numbers of states acquiring the means to deploy them increasing, is arguably a paradox as intriguing as that of the nature of the atom itself.

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