Cha-Cha On The Nanoscale – Mutable Matter’s Fantastic Voyage

It is August, most geographers are whizzing around the planet in search of knowledge, adventure or the perfect tan, and I’m sitting here with my box of plasticine and a longing for a change of scenery. So what is the most obvious place to go on a nano budget? To the nanoscale of course. Especially if a certain constellation of iron atoms has its 50th anniversary. And how do you get there? First of all, a tunnel sucks you under the ocean, you then arrive pre-shrunk at the other end, ready to embark the Radium Bus…

or you can go via the ‘Porte de HAL’ if you still trust this entity. If you do, you pass some cyberpunky graffiti and the Pavillion of Temporary Happiness, et voila, you’re there!

First, you have to find out what you can and can’t do in the world of atoms. As you can see: you can’t rollerblade, smoke, eat, drink or take dogs, but you can film, enter with a visa, put spare atoms into the appropriate bins and, er, watch out for pick pockets (are you safe from them anywhere?).

Once you have entered the first atom, an omni-lingual voice tells you about the history of the place and introduces you to the native fauna while you are whisked through long and rather steep gangways.

It also discloses that the nanoscale has a restaurant with view onto surrounding atoms.

The history is indeed interesting, especially when it comes in quotes from people who did the same Fantastic Voyage in 1958. All sorts of conflicts of national representation, world view and personal drama played themselves out around the shiny atoms. Of course, the atoms were a source of contention in themselves, however, unlike the nanoscale at the Festival of Britain, there was little worry about a fear of the atom. So no issue with a gigantic group of them looming over a city like a deranged space alien – people just knew it was a peaceful creature.


© asbl Atomium, photo by Marie-Françoise Plissart

And, as will all peaceful creatures, they radiate hope, independence, progress, or, as one reporter put it, ‘invention, ingenuity and skills’. Of course there were unenlightened critics who deemed the structure ‘as insignificant as the wisecracks of an enormous child – clumsy, meaningless and without any link to the forces that will one day destroy us all’. Destruction? No way! ‘Humans should have control over technology again and not the other way round’ was the motto. Even today the motto reads ‘building a new world for modern human beings, giving them new dignity in a friendly meeting of all people’. That some of these people can sometimes be a bit confused about the message is evident in the occasional mistaking of the nine atoms as a representation of the old nine Belgian provinces. To update the constellation, another round building in the vicinity had to be adopted as the 10th province. Cute.

For the 50th anniversary of this journey, all sorts of activities were taking place around the ‘Atomium’ as the natives call it. As some of these festivities were either too scary (an Atomium Death Ride?!) or too pricy, visitors decided to engage in ‘priceless’ alternatives such as these. Instead of breaking out into dance moves, I took a few pictures which would appear with me on the macroscale at the end of the visit, and which I could show to people. Wait a moment? Wasn’t there some issue around showing pictures of the Atomium? Copyrighted atoms? Help!

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