On Sunday, January 23, 1957, a large American audience gathered around their television sets to watch the weekly episode of Disneyland, a popular show created and hosted by Walt Disney in return for an investment from ABC that he used to build Disneyland. On that evening, the audience was treated to a compressed course in atomic physics and science history titled “Our Friend, The Atom.”
The show’s narrator, Heinz Haber, was a knowledgable, respected nuclear scientist. With the help of the professional storytellers and animators who worked for Walt Disney, he wove a fascinating, informative tale that compared the discovery of atomic energy to the fable from The Arabian Nights titled The Fisherman and the Genie (some translations use the title “The Fisherman and the Demon”).
(Time mark 7:00) Heinz Haber – Strangely enough, our story is like that fable [Fisherman and the Genie] come true through science. We are like the fisherman. For centuries, we have been casting our net into the sea of the great unknown in search of knowledge. An finally, we found a vessel, and like the one in the fable, it contains a genie. A genie hidden in the atoms of this metal, uranium. Let me show you. This is a geiger counter. It shows that the genie is here and present in these atoms.
So this is our story. How the vessel was discovered, how the genie was liberated, how it first threatened to kill and how it was finally harnessed to grant us three wishes
Through the magic of YouTube and a channel titled Disneytv4me it is now possible for anyone with an internet connection and a browser to replay that tale and experience the excitement and hopeful sense of discovery that inspired the families of early 1957. The original show aired at a time when newspapers were full of stories about “The Atomic Age.” The first commercial nuclear plant in the free world had begun operating at Calder Hall in Great Britain, the USS Nautilus was conducting its inspiring and well-publicized voyages under the sea, and the first nuclear power station in the United States was nearing completion.
It was a time when people cited science as a tool for human progress, not as a club with which to beat people into fearing the future and restricting their natural desires for a more bountiful, energy-driven existence for everyone.
Please pour yourself a cold beverage, put some popcorn on the table and gather some friends or family around to watch this important program. Share it widely. Think about how to recover the optimism that infused the US and much of the rest of the world in the 1950s.