Splitting the Atom

Splitting the Atom


In this lesson you'll learn about the Marie and Pierre Curie, the husband-wife team who spent much of their careers studying radioactivity.


Marie Curie (1867-1934) and Pierre Curie (1859-1906) are perhaps two of the most famous scientists known for their contributions to the study of radioactivity. Pierre was born in Paris and Marie in Poland. In 1895, they were married. They both studied at the Sorbonne, and together made significant contributions to the field of radiation studies. They studied the properties of uranium and thorium and soon discovered polonium. Pierre pursued the study of magnetism acting at high temperatures. Marie Curie continued her studies in chemistry and physics and is the only person ever to receive Nobel Awards in both disciplines.

Radiation has always existed in the natural world, but scientists were unaware of it until the end of the 19th century. The scientist that is perhaps most associated with radiation studies is Marie Curie. In this lesson, you will explore the work of the Curies and other early radiation researchers. Begin by reading The Discovery Of Radioactivity: The Dawn of the Nuclear Age (pdf).

Your group will do a report on one of the topics listed below. Each report should contain a 500-word essay, drawings, photographs, or other illustrations. The reports can be done as PowerPoint presentations, desktop published articles, or posters with accompanying essays. Your work should draw upon a variety of contemporary and current sources—including newspapers and periodicals, government documents, personal memoirs, etc.

Topics for Student Reports

  • The Curies, who won the Nobel Prize in physics for their research in radioactivity, chose not to exploit their discoveries commercially. In fact, they made radium available to the scientific community so that the nature of radioactivity could be studied further. Why was this important?
  • After Pierre Curie died, Marie Curie continued her research and succeeded despite the widespread prejudice against women in physical science. Describe the obstacles that she faced and provide evidence of her success in spite of those obstacles.
  • Describe the scientific research conducted by the Curies. What steps did they take to produce radium and polonium? What were the results of their research?
  • How did Rutherford's work expand on that of the Curies? Explain his work in defining the planetary model of the atom and how that helped to understand the nature of atomic structure.
  • Describe the use of radioactivity in generating energy, in medicine, in industry, and in other fields of scientific research.

Sources for More Information
You can use the following resources to research your report topics. In addition to the ones listed below, you also can find a wealth of books on the historical and scientific aspects of the discovery of radioactivity and the splitting of the atom in your school or public library.

Knowledge Check

These resources can be used to enhance the study of the history of the splitting of the atom, including the work of Lise Meitner, Otto Frish, Enrico Fermi, and others.

You can continue to explore some of the social issues involved in the development of nuclear energy and weapons by examining these resources:

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