Atomic Perfume, Neutron Christmas Musicals, Particle Zoos, and the Link Between Mayonnaise and Space Travel

Being ill has the advantage that you finally get to sit (or lie) down and do things that you normally don’t have the time – or the lethargy – to do. What I did was: mending clothes, listening to lots of archived programmes of Radio 4’s ‘The Material World’ and watching all three parts of the BBC4 series ‘Atom’ that a friend had kindly recorded for me (thanks, Chris!) as I am one of the few television-less people in the world (and that as an OU student, oh dear!).

‘Atom’ is a weird sort of mini-series in that it makes quantum physics entertaining for everybody. You receive information on key moments of science and their corresponding experiments, as well as the cultural and personal events that gave rise to them (sometimes way too personal, e.g. ‘the sexually charged physics’ of Schroedinger and Feynman). What I liked about the programme was first of all, that it tackled this subject. No matter whether one likes or dislikes how it was done, one has to admit that it succeeds at raising questions. Fittingly, the scientist-presenter Jim Al-Khalili closes the series with the words: ‘when I’m away from my work, I still wonder what it all means’. Even in its most corny moments, the programme manages to astound. Did you know that scientists wrote a musical about the discovery of the neutron? Apparently so, though I have not been able to find any evidence of this (if it really exists, I want a copy of the score!). What I have found are the ‘radium cosmetics’ mentioned in the programme. Why did people manufacture radium cosmetics? At the time of its discovery radium proclaimed a ‘miracle cure’ and hence a fashion fad for ‘beneficial’ radium products led to very bizarre creations such as ‘parfum atomique’, radium bath products (‘for healthy skin’), radium razor blades etc. As Al-Khalili commented: ‘the good old days when ignorance really was bliss’ (unfortunately, it rarely was bliss as one can see from the example of the Radium Girls).

Source: Institut Curie,

What I also liked was how the programme managed to come up with some good visual comparisons regarding atoms and forces (e.g. ‘there are more atoms in a glass of water than there are glasses of water in all of the world’s oceans’) while at the same time unsettling them (e.g. ‘the act of measurement creates atoms/the universe’), so that you have to ask yourself how you prefer to think of atoms/matter/yourself/the world/the universe. Other great moments include the juxtaposition of ‘we are all made of stardust’ with ‘we are all nuclear waste’, the statement that ‘space is a constant storm of creation and destruction’ (well, it’s great if you’re a geographer…) and the link between ‘the mysterious force of mayonnaise’ and space travel.

More on Mutable Matter’s TV and radio experiences soon…


4 thoughts on “Atomic Perfume, Neutron Christmas Musicals, Particle Zoos, and the Link Between Mayonnaise and Space Travel

  1. Hi
    I read your entry with great interest.
    I too enjoyed the Atom series except that I missed part 3 (tempoary glitch of my sky box!) and was wondering if you could let me have a copy of the final part (part3) of the atom series. Naturally I would cover any costs..

  2. Pingback: Strahlende Schönheit « Der globale Glaser

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