How and when did "the atom" become an icon for science?

Think about it…in popular culture, whenever someone wants to represent “science” - there’s usually a little picture of an atom with the electrons looping around the nucleus.

Why is this? Who decided that this should be the symbol for “science” ? There are so many things that could have been chosen (microscope, test tubes, slide rule, computer, light bulb…

My WAG is that it first appeared in the 1950’s or 1960’s, together with the whole atomic age-thing. As to why, I guess it is because the picture of the atom is very recognizable and simple to draw.

Because he has a much cooler uniform than, say, Hawkman.

I suspect it was earlier than the 1950s. The advent of the atomic bomb probably gave it a big boost in the late 1940s, but I’ll bet you could find examples in science fiction art earlier than that. Popularization of the Bohr Atom was coincident with its developement in physics. You can’t understand stories like “The Girl in the Golden Atom” without knowing about it.
What kills me about the popular image of the atom (as seen in, say Jimmy Neutron, is that even in Bohr theory, the atom doesn’t look like that, with three or so well-defined orbital planes. Since the orbit could take any orientation, the orbitals even then were visualized as “shells”, unless the rotation were “stopped” to show orbital distances. With the rise of the “new” quantum theory and Schroedinger’s equation, of course, that all went out the window, and you had orbitals of probability density that took on increasingly odd shapes. Maybe the problem is that these didn’t work well as graphics, not instantly conveying the sense. Editorial cartoonist Pat Oliphant can draw a few Jimmy Neutron atoms coming out of a crack in Three Mile Island and yopu know what he’s saying. If he put p- or d-orbits in there it’d look like a bad Monster Movie. And, as one of my profs pointed out, some hybrid orbitals look downright obscene.

I suspect a lot of it has to do with the history of science. Why use a light bulb invented in the 1800’s when the idea of atomos goes back 2500 years (and even before). The atom represents the earliest basic science. The other examples you gave are just various applied sciences.

I think that, nowadays, DNA is becoming the icon of choice.

Yeah, the “orbital” atom now brings to mind kitsch and nostalgia.

As CalMeacham points out, it isn’t even accurate, and I would guess that would prompt some objection from any actual science-types reviewing prospective designs.

Curious you’d refer to a “Jimmy Neutron atom” being drawn on a Three Mile Island cartoon when the event was a couple of decades before the cartoon.

The navy uses a Bohr style atom as an insignia for electronics technicians. It has two electron orbits with five pointed stars to represent the electrons and four dots in the nucleus. The odd thing was I always heard it referred to it as a Lithium atom.


A metal pin for a cap that shows the insignia more clearly than an embroidered patch would.

The Atomium is an amazing building in Brussels, used as the symbol of the 1958 World’s Fair.

It’s still a major feature of the city today.

I did that as a contemporary reference. What would you call it?
The best comment on this use of the “atom” symbol I’ve seen is in the Graphic Novel Watchmen. The costume designers associated with the US Government want Dr. Manhattan to wear a helmet with a “Jimmy Neutron” atom on it.

Dr. Manhattan: What’s this?

Designer: You know, it’s an atom – atomic power, all that…

Dr. Manhattan: I do not think I will be wearing this. If I wear a symbol, it will be something I respect.

He then draws a dot on his forehead, surrounding it with a circle, with a dot on that circle representing the electron. It’s a schematic hydrogen atom.

Dr. Manhattan: There

Designer: (rubbing chin) You know, I think that might work.

According to Spencer Weart in Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (Harvard, 1988, p404-6), a very good study of just this sort of thing, the “ringed atom was by far the most common of all pictorial images found in nuclear energy representations from the 1920s on.” Having discussed how it derives from the Bohr model, even though this was already falling out of use amongst scientists in the 1920s, he goes on:

Weart goes on the suggest rather Jungian interpretations of it.
A technical quibble about the above is perhaps in order. The original Bohr model was that published in The Philosophical Journal in July 1913 and it is entirely symmetrical with circular orbits. It’s not until September 1914 that he suggested using elliptical orbits, in an attempt to explain the fine structure. These attempts, into the 1920s, became rather baroque, so representing the orbits all off to one side was just for clarity in diagrams.

Oh, if it’s been in a graphic novel then I withdraw my objection. :smiley: Seriously, where is there a clear picture of the Jimmy Neutron atom? I looked on IMDB and couldn’t find a picture with a clear image of it.

At any rate I take the navy electronics tech atom symbol to be Helium which makes it inappropriate for electronics.

There ought to be a term that describes the nostalgia for a past vision of a future that would never come-to-be. (Does that make sense?)

How about “The Gernsback Continuum” ?

Retro Future.

All during 1999 there was a website titled Retro Future, and its updates were a weekly feature on AOL. It revisited all the stuff from the mid-20th century (from the 1930s to the 1960s) that was imagined to be in our “future”. Which is now. So where are the flying cars, dammit?

“The Way the Future Was”

Hmm…perhaps for that you’d have to use the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional tense from Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the end of the Universe

Thanks for all the answers folks…some very plausible theories in there.

Jomo Mojo writes:

> Retro Future

And that term has been around since at least the mid-'80’s. I used the term “retro-future” in this film review:

I recall using the term in conversation back in the mid-80’s.