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Sticks and balls.

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It’s not strictly accurate, but then it’s not meant to be. And in a country now ten months without a government, what better place for celebrating the approximations of bonds. It wobbles in the wind. It wasn’t designed to. Crystals aren’t meant to sway.

Before it was made, the designs were amended to include some lone pairs extending from three of the atoms to act as extra legs. If they help, they don’t help much.

Atomium was built as a symbol of unity, and progress, but it is really a spectacularly public celebration of science. Not oblique, Holbeinian science. This is Proper science. From school.

As such things always do, the last remnant of the 1958 EXPO lives in an area that was once meant to benefit from its presence; it sits on land given to the city by the ever-paternalistic Belgian monarchy. Atomium overlooks a miniature Europe theme park; by night it is the roundabout of choice for the local boy-racers.

Who knows whether it has made a difference? It is an enticing idea that the schools in the area have produced an above average number of crystallographers. Maybe they just grew up with a morbid fear of high winds.


If specifics are needed, it is nine steel spheres — one in the centre surrounded symmetrically by eight others. A body-centred cubic. 2 atoms per unit cell, 2 net lattice points (1 +1/8 . 8); a packing factor of 0.6802. It is taller than Big Ben. The spheres used to be clad in aluminium, now stainless steel.

Notable elements that have BCC structure : iron (mostly). But not aluminium (FCC).


It was refurbished recently, but it doesn’t really show. It would look rusty if it weren’t whitewashed with stainless steel. If it didn’t have the weird unphysical legs, it would’ve fallen down years ago.

I’m not sure it ever really had any glory days. The museum is dull (it’s not got much to work with: Atomium was built by un-harnessed Belgians who smoked roll-ups while sauntering across girders in the snow; it has a lift that ascends at a spine-shortening five metres per second). Sitting in the restaurant feels as though you and it are sealed within an air-tight metal ball, which you are. Most of the windows are too dirty to see out of and the escalators are frankly terrifying.

But none of this is important.

Even if it had blown down as soon as it was finished, it would still have been the only major public monument built to science. Even if visitors could do no more than sit at picnic tables at its base, it would it still be worth the trip. It is a monument to science and what it promises. But more than that, it is a monument to understanding, to what it means to understand. To what it means to be proud of understanding.

Ah, come on, just look at it.



Written by alexconnor

April 3, 2011 at 20:20

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