Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Chic Young's Dagwood Bumstead does some science

"When Dagwood Bumstead Split the Atom"


Esther Inglis-Arkell

May 19th, 2012


It's not often that Chic Young, the newspaper cartoonist responsible for the exploits of Blondie's hapless husband, and General Leslie Groves, the military man responsible for the Manhattan Project, get together. But when they do, it's spectacular. In 1949, Dagwood, Blondie — and their freaking dogs — split the atom together.

For the years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions, the American public was in an uproar about what to think, regarding the power of splitting the atom. There was some hope for a brighter future, but it was mixed with a lot of fear as reports trickled in about the power of the atomic bomb and the creeping, invisible threat of radiation.

The government, well into testing more applications for nuclear technology and looking forward to an arms race with the Soviet Union, wanted to give people the basic facts and put a bright spin on the atomic future. To do this they came up with Dagwood Splits the Atom, seen in full at  The Ephemerist . In it, Dagwood and assorted other newspaper comics characters go to a carnival tent, where Mandrake the Magician shrinks Dagwood and his family down so they can get a look at atoms and split a uranium atom themselves.

 The comic features Dagwood blowing a neutron into a uranium atom through a tube and celebrating when it splits, yelling, "I got the touch!" He then whisks a kid out of the way of the chain reaction of other exploding uranium atoms, telling her that she needs to watch it all from a safe distance.

Comics characters leave the tent exuberant, saying things like, "Furthermore, Popeye, don't forget that scientists must learn more about the atom before they can harness it to make it actually go to work. But they will!" There are a few pages about how atomic power will help industry, medical science, and agriculture — and then it ends with a quote from Lincoln.

It's actually a fairly good, basic explanation about what fission is, and what its better prospects are. The comics characters do a good job of adding some basic levity, and the entire thing is based in fact. The only problem is what it leaves out — which were the military and environmental effects of atomic power. But those things don't have any place in Dagwood's world. In Blondie, there's no prospect of war, no great hardship, and really, no problem a sandwich can't fix. That, in the end, is why the two disparate concepts were brought together. To get the hygienic view of atoms, you have to put yourself inside an entirely innocent world. That only existed in the funny papers.

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