Disney’s Friend Atom

A casual reference in NPR’s Morning Edition this morning piqued my curiosity about a 1956 Disney film called Our Friend the Atom. It was shown at Disneyland and in many classrooms – I hear all Baby Boomers are very familiar with this little piece of Disneyana, but it was new to me.

It is an optimistic propaganda piece in support of nuclear energy, but it also clearly explains a lot of science and the history of science, and I’d prefer to focus on that aspect. I had high hopes about how the story telling geniuses at Disney could communicate science in an engaging way, but I was largely disappointed. I suppose it was naive to think that a 1953 mainstream film would be a gem of science communication, since that is the origin of many of the stereotypes we are saddled with today. Well, see for yourself:

Suggestions for Disney after the break

Isn’t it disappointing that it wasn’t all animated and told like their famous and popular princess stories? Using the Aladdin story as a running metaphor gave Disney a foothold, but when it came time to deliver the science all we got was a lecture-style, not what I hoped. Of course, the science is a bit outdated, but at least there are some nice animations to illustrate points (like phase transitions around 17:30), and I enjoyed animations of scientists at work.

With decades more experience on how to engage (and manipulate) our attention under its mouse-breeches, I would love to see Disney take on science topics (minus the propaganda) now. Here are two suggestions:

The Little Primatologist – a princess-style film based on Jane Goodall’s encounters with chimps

Scientasia – animations of science and math set to classical music. I envision dancing ribosomes making proteins, cells dividing through mitosis, nautilus shells growing, and stars moving through their life cycles. FSM, I would love to see that!

Or how about an animated adventure tale of Darwin’s Beagle voyage?

I’m not sure that science topics can be as engaging as magical stories, but think it should be possible. Who wants to try?


I'm a science artist and science writer involved in various informal science communication projects, such as jewelry based on molecule shapes, a quirky documentary on origin of life theories, and the Science Tarot. I have a PhD in molecular biophysics & biochemistry from Yale University and completed graduate work in science communication at UC Santa Cruz. I'm currently carrying on an off-grid homesteading experiment on the Big Island of Hawai'i.

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  1. Have you watched “Donald In Mathemagic Land”? I think it has all of the characteristics you are asking for. It is pretty much entirely animated, lacks any sort of propaganda, is fun and interesting. The story is Donald Duck being guided through the world of mathematics by voice called “The True Spirit of Adventure”. It has good music, a couple scenes of some adventure (such as Donald being chased around a chess board by some violent chess pieces), but is very informative (it is accessible to children but my mother said she learned a lot from it).

    The only non-animated section is a brief clip of an expert playing billiards, and even that is constantly interrupted with animated scenes explaining the basic mathematics involved.

    So it isn’t really like a princess story, but is far from a lecture as well.

  2. @ raven: Thanks, please post your thoughts when you are done. I am interested in your take on it.

  3. Distributed by Disney, but not created by them is “Here Comes Science” by They Might be Giants. Definitely check it out.

    There is an album and DVD of animations. It’s wonderful.

    Here is “The Elements”

  4. @raven and theblackcat: Where can I get a copy of Donald in Mathemagicland? I’ve been looking for it for ages! (My mom was a math teacher; it was one of the first cartoons I ever saw.)
    And I would also pay to see Scientasia. That sounds pretty awesome.

  5. @ geekgirl: Where do you live? I’m in the U.S. and I picked up a copy for next to nothing from Best Buy (I think it was $4 or $5).

  6. A post about Donald in Mathemagic Land will go up at 2pm EDT. In the meantime, you can watch it here (part 1 of 3 parts):

    @daveb I’ve been a They Might Be Giants fan for, oh, about 2 decades. As you might imagine, I was so looking forward to Here Comes Science coming out, but I found I couldn’t get into it. I will have to give it another listen. Thank you for the reminder/nudge!

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