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Are Atoms Real? 1860 Conference of Chemistry at Karlsruhe Short Game

by David E Henderson and Susan K Henderson

Are Atoms Real if You Can't See Them?
This game is set in the first international chemistry meeting in Karlsruhe, Germany. The assembled scientists represent the who’s who of 19th century science. The game considers three main issues:

1. Are atoms real or just a theoretical idea? This pits empiricists who accept only what they discover with the five senses against realists who use experiments and logic to infer that atoms must be real.

2. Should all types of experiments produce the same result for formulas and relative weights? Experimental evidence from different types of experiments gives different values for the relative weights of carbon and oxygen. Is there a reason that the results should be consistent?

3. What are the correct relative weights of the elements and formulas of compounds? The factions present conflicting values for the relative weights of the elements carbon and oxygen and the empirical formulas of simple organic compounds in the format of a professional meeting.

Much of the conflict in the game centers on the proper formulas for water and carbon oxide and the relative weights of carbon and oxygen. These were much in dispute in 1860. The arguments center on differing interpretations of a collection of experimental data available in 1860. The game fits particularly well in courses that look at the historical development of chemistry including the Atoms First approach and also in history and philosophy of science courses. In basic science courses, instructors have the option of requiring students to do the calculations from raw experimental data. Alternatively, students can be given the results of the calculations and then defend their interpretation of the results.



History of Science & Technology, Philosophy, Chemistry, STEM


19th Century


2+ STEM (what's that mean?)

Themes and Issues  
Realists vs Empiricists, Conflicting explanations, Empirical data and experimental evidence

Player Interactions 
Factional, Competitive

Sample Class Titles
General Chemistry, Science for non-majors, Philosophy of Science

Notable Roles
Justus Liebig, Stanisllao Cannizarro, Lothar Meyer

Debate and voting

Chaos and Demand on Instructor 
Low chaos level, low demand on instructor

Using the Game

Class Time  
3-4 class sessions (1 setup, 1½ - 2 gameplay, ½ - 1 debrief) are recommended for this class. Debriefing can often happen in the second session.

Possible Reacting Game Pairings
This game can be used on its own, or with other games. These pairings are meant to be illustrative rather than exhaustive or prescriptive. One might pair this with The Trial of Galileo, Charles Darwin, or Food Fight

You can adjust the assignments based on the desired learning outcomes of your class. The primary source material is experimental data. Students can either receive the final calculated results, or, in chemistry classes, they can be required to do the calculations. For courses in Philosophy of Science, additional texts by Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Compte and others may be assigned. This game can include scientific writing and interpretation of experimental results. All roles are expected to give a prepared speech. 

Class Size and Scalability
This game is recommended for classes with 9-40 students. 


Reacting Consortium members can access all downloadable materials (including expanded and updated materials) below. You will be asked to sign in before downloading.  


Students need a Gamebook, which includes directions, resources, and historical content. Students also need a Role Sheet, which contains biographical information, and their character's secret victory objectives.

Download the Gamebook
(Members Only)

Version 5.3b. Updated January 2016.

Instructor's Manual and Role Sheets

The Instructor's Guide includes guidance for assigning roles, presenting the game's context and topics, assignments, and more.  The Role Sheets are also included in this document. 


David Henderson
David E. Henderson is Professor Emeritus at Trinity College (Connecticut). He is author of nine Reacting game modules on science, public policy, and religion.

Susan K. Henderson
Susan Henderson was a Professor of Chemistry at Quinnipiac University, where she taught general chemistry, analytical chemistry and nutrition for non-science majors for over 35 years. She is co-author of three published games, and multiple games under review.


Members can contact game authors directly

We invite instructors join our Facebook Faculty Lounge, where you'll find a wonderful community eager to help and answer questions. We also encourage you to submit your question for the forthcoming FAQ, and to check out our upcoming events


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