“Atom Boy!” (E28)

  • Originally printed: Liberty Magazine, February 14, 1931
  • First reprinted in: Benchley Lost and Found
  • Unable to compare reprint with original text – Liberty Historical Archives not available at Toronto Public Library
  • Original Byline: unknown


RB contemplates the Atomic Future with a mixture of bewilderment and cosmic irritation, soothed by genuine delight at the prospect of a post-work social order. As concepts like protons, neutrons, and atom smashing trickled into the popular consciousness via reporting on the theories and lab experiments of Ernest Rutherford and others, Transcendental Absurdists of a Benchleyan bent were bound to take an interest, if only until they realized some math would be involved.

This piece offers an excellent demonstration of RB’s perfected approach/avoidance style in dealing with abstruse subject matter (to compare the results with an earlier effort in this vein, see E11). Exasperated by the microscopic scale of his intellectual query (and quarry), our author veers momentarily off course into sub-vaudeville ethnic humor. This goes nowhere either and leads him back to the thought that everything – from open mic routines to the supposed building blocks of the universe – appears to be crumbling under the strain of humanity’s decaying orbit around superseded verities. But hey, if we can bombard the discombobulated fragments of the old order with alpha particles and generate enough leisure time for everyone, maybe it’ll all be worth it? (Annotater’s note – no luck on that score.)

Favourite Moment:
“I think there was even more to the story than that tantalizing bit I have given you, but it is too late now. We are back again on the atom.”

“All About Relativity: Einstein’s Theory Explained for The Lay-Mind in Simple Terms” (E11)

  • Originally Published: Vanity Fair, March 1920
  • First Reprinted: Never
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley


Nothing earth-shattering here, as Benchley bends Einstein’s bolts from the blackness of space into a set of light goofs on gravity. RB mocks the incongruously chummy obscurantism that characterizes so much popular scientific discourse, laying a miserable crumb trail of the theory’s most easily digestible minutiae that leads absolutely nowhere. Promising to open up a worm hole between the lay reader’s mind and the core concepts of cutting-edge 20th century physics, RB then tosses the low hanging fruit of his obtuse inquiry aside without so much as an existential frisson. The author’s quarrel is not with Einstein, or with any of his fellow pioneers in the vanguard of space-time research, but rather with the newspaper and magazine hacks who come off like the half-assed evangels of a new cosmic theory whose power to illuminate never glimmers onto the page.

Published a couple of months after Benchley’s resignation from Vanity Fair in protest against the dismissal of Dorothy Parker and Robert Sherwood, this could very well be the erstwhile Managing Editor’s final piece for the magazine (I guess I won’t know that for sure until I complete my alphabetical survey). If so, he went out on a fittingly futile note.

Favourite Moment:
“When the professors have got this far in their explanation of Einstein’s Theory, they say that, of course, the whole thing is difficult to explain to the lay-mind, and that the best and most loyal thing to do is simply to take the scientists’ word for it and let it go at that.”