Splitting the Atom

What You Need


  • The 1943 movie, Madame Curie (with Greer Garson)
Splitting the Atom


To use the Internet to research the history of the splitting of the atom. To use that research to prepare a presentation on an aspect of that topic.


The focus of the "splitting-the-atom" story should be on the discovery of nuclear fission and its impact on world affairs. It is important not to overlook the science in this episode when considering the ethical and national-security considerations associated with fission and fusion. It is a measure of its significance that books for the general reader continue to emerge on this subject.

The story of the discovery of radioactivity and the structure of the nucleus of the atom, along with the incredible results that followed in this century, is drama of the highest order. It also illuminates several features of the scientific enterprise: the role of accidental discovery, the interdependence of disciplines, the ability of women to do outstanding work in both empirical and theoretical science, and the impact of science on world affairs.

The focus of this lesson is on the benchmarks that pertain to the Curies' involvement in the "splitting-the-atom" story. (Science for All Americans, p. 155)

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View part of the 1943 movie, Madame Curie, with Greer Garson (or have students view the film as homework). Discuss what students know about the Curies and their significance in the history of science.


Have students use the Splitting the Atom student esheet to go to and read The Discovery Of Radioactivity: The Dawn of the Nuclear Age. (You could print this page out and give it to students as a handout.)

After students have read the selection, discuss the concluding paragraph: "Radiation is a two edged sword: its usefulness in both medicine and anthropological and archaeological studies is undisputed, yet the same materials can be used for destruction. Human curiosity drove inquiring scientists to harness the power of the atom. Now humankind must accept the responsibility for the appropriate and beneficial uses of this very powerful tool."

Next, divide the class into research groups. Each group will do a report on one of the following topics. 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. Student work should draw upon a variety of contemporary and current sources—including newspapers and periodicals, government documents, personal memoirs, etc. The student esheet will provide links to resources and summaries of the report topics.

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

Students can use these resources to research their report topics. They also can find a wealth of books on the historical and scientific aspects of the discovery of radioactivity and the splitting of the atom.


To summarize and assess student understanding of the ideas in the central benchmarks, have students put the events surrounding the splitting of the atom into a story map in which students generate a map of its events and ideas.

In order to map the story, students must identify the setting, characters, time, and place of the story, the problem, the goal, the action that took place, and the outcome.


Radium: Narrative of a Moral Dilemma is a writing project in which the student plays the role of a character in an ethical real-life dilemma faced by medical researchers and patients whenever there is a breakthrough in the development of a procedure or drug to cure a disease. (This is an archived version of the activity at Internet Archive.)

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.

Students 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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Lesson Details

Grades Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards