Retrotechtacular: Gone Fission

This week’s film begins as abruptly as the Atomic Age itself, though it wasn’t produced by General Electric until 1952. No time is wasted in getting to the point of the thing, which is to explain the frightening force of nuclear physics clearly and simply through friendly animations.

[Dr. Atom] from the Bohr Modeling Agency describes what’s going on in his head—the elementary physics of protons, neutrons, and electrons. He explains that atoms can be categorized into families, with uranium weighing in as the heaviest element at the time. While most atoms are stable, some, like radium, are radioactive. This evidently means it stays up all night doing the Charleston and throwing off neutrons and protons in the process of jumping between atomic families. [Dr. Atom] calls this behavior natural transmutation.

Artificial transmutation became a thing in the 1930s after scientists converted nitrogen into oxygen. After a couple of celebratory beers, they decided to fire a neutron at a uranium nucleus just to see what happened. The result is known as nuclear fission. This experiment revealed more about the binding force present in nuclei and the chain reaction of atomic explosions that takes place. It seemed only natural to weaponize this technology. But under the right conditions, a reactor pile made from graphite blocks interspersed with U-235 and -238 rods is a powerful and effective source of energy. Furthermore, radioactive isotopes have advanced the fields of agriculture, industry, medicine, and biochemistry.

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

18 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Gone Fission

  1. “But under the right conditions, a reactor pile made from graphite blocks interspersed with U-235 and -238 rods is a powerful and effective source of energy.”

    And under the wrong conditions, a much larger pile can kaboom and blow burning irradiated graphite across the Soviet landscape. Containment vessel? We don’t need no steenkeng containment vessel!

    1. FYI- The containment vessel is why the reactor at Chernobyl exploded. And it was not a graphite moderated reactor. If there had been no containment vessel, the steam would have simply flashed into the atmosphere. It’s the reason small light water cooled research reactors at universities are open cycle. It reduces the potential for explosion events. But in that case they produce electricity, and they needed a pressure vessel.
      Piles don’t “kaboom” they just fracture / melt / or catch fire (depending on moderator).

      1. First of all, it was RBMK – or High Power Channeled Reactor, which is graphite-based. By containment vessel, I think, Galane meant specifically designed reactor building, not pressure vessel. USSR wasn’t building them before Chernobyl (opposed to USA, where containment was integral part of NPP from the beginning). Also, there two kinds of boom – dirty bombs and nuclear bombs. Piles will “just” melt, yes, but as soon they accumulate enough corium to form critical mass, they will go boom much louder.

    2. Seriously HAD, could you put the report flag in a more awkward place on the screen. As I scroll up and down on my phone’s screen that is a natural place to end up. I don’t know how many people’s comments I’ve accidentally reported.
      At least move it, better yet make it toggle flagged/unflagged.


    Here’s some of that agriculture. Scientists at places around the world planted lots of different plants in a circle, each type of plant in a wedge shape going outwards from the centre. In the centre, a piece of very radioactive cobalt was placed on a pole. They left the cobalt fizzing away and now and then checked the plants, purely to see what wierd things happened. The ones nearer the middle getting more of the radiation.

    Red grapefruit came from one of these gardens. It’s fascinating.

    1. Glad people like it! I should say they’re called “Gamma Gardens” if you want to look them up more. And the cobalt on a pole had a hole in the ground it could be mechanically withdrawn into, shielded, for convenience when the atomic gardeners did their rounds. There’s still one in Japan that runs tours.

      The other big thing is disease-resistant spearmint. Most of the world’s spearmint now is descended from an atomic variation from a Gamma Garden. Clean your teeth the atomic way!

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