An investigation into the life and work of Sir John Cockcroft

Presenter Joe Crowley helps a team of four pupils to understand the importance of an invention which made it possible to split the atom.

The hunt for clues to understanding Sir John Cockcroft's voltage multiplier starts in a sports stadium where a scientist uses a table tennis ball and the sports ground itself to explain to the children the relative size of an atom's parts.

The children use online research tools to find the Cockcroft Institute, a museum charting Sir John's work. There, they find out that they can visit a particle accelerator, a machine which makes it possible to split the atom by using massive amounts of electricity, made possible by the Cockcroft-Walton voltage multiplier. At the particle accelerator, a scientist explains how the machine works. Using online archive research tools, the children discover newsreel and filmed TV news reports which explain that splitting the atom led to the development of nuclear bombs used in the Second World War. However, they also find out that atomic energy, which is released when the atom is split, can be used for peaceful purposes like generating power.

The children learn Sir John dedicated his life to using atomic energy for peaceful purposes. The children meet relatives of Sir John who, through personal testimony, explain how he was a good father but that his work meant he was away from home a good deal.

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12 minutes

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