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​Why the Atomium?


Photo © R J A Jarvis 2001. All rights reserved.

The Atomium is a remarkable building in Brussels, Belgium. Created for the World Fair of 1958, the Atomium became a symbol of the 20th Century, the century during which the atom was fully mastered, became widely used by man, and thus profoundly affecting the development of our society. The designer of the Atomium, the engineer André Waterkeyn, hit upon the idea of a building which represents the atomic lattice of iron crystals, magnified 165 billion times linearly, according to the "cubic body centred" concept. The Atomium is thus the visualization of microscopic molecular structures on a greatly enlarged scale. The spheres of the Atomium represent atoms in a crystalline space lattice. In scientific terminology "crystalline" means "arranged according to a defined geometric form". The tubes connecting the spheres symbolize the bonding forces between the atoms.

The Atomium has nine spheres. It is surprising how many connecting tubes there are. In theory, with nine spheres, there could be 36 bidirectional tubes. The building actually has 24 since the architect has been clever enough to place the spheres such that some direct linkages can be made via intermediate spheres for example up the middle. This also provides multiple routes through the lattice which can be useful in circumstances such as emergencies or simple curiosity.

The analogy with Systems Architecture may not be immediately obvious. In system architecture work we are concerned with discovering facts about the enterprise, and the problem domain, and understanding how these facts relate to each other. From this understanding, we deduce various strategies and initiatives to modify and extend the facts, hopefully to the benefit of the enterprise.

The Atomium building is a useful illustration of the idea which forms the basis for our Architectural Paradigm.  We use the notion of "spheres of interest" (we call them "structures") to represent coherent groups of facts, and the connecting tubes represent the relationships between the groups of facts. Placing ourselves, metaphorically, in one of the spheres, we can examine the facts in our sphere of interest, and then, look down the tubes and see related facts contained in another sphere of interest. We might even travel along a tube – the Atomium building actually has elevators and escalators within some of the tubes – and go on a voyage of discovery from one set of facts to another, and even onwards to further related sets of facts.

What is in a sphere of interest or structure? View it as a library. It contains all the information on a particular topic, filed and organised for easy access. Various filing schemes could be used but a major advantage would be to avoid redundancy. We only want to file a fact in one place not many. This makes it easy to find and easy to update. Also it would be advantageous to organise the information in a tree structure, or hierarchy, provided that it fits. Thus we can keep the detail at the bottom of the stack and have summary layers above, making it easier to deal with large volumes of information. The information need not be textual, it could include diagrams, documents (or their references), or multimedia items.