Then The Legend!
The Discovery of Radioactivity
by Talal Halabi,
The Beginning of Rays’ Life
It was the years between 1897 and 1903, a little bit before the years of the world wars, the dying in groups, and the greatest human suffering. That was the time of a fantastic discovery that will change the world of medicine they knew it. Two previous discoveries led Marie Curie to unfold a mysterious phenomenon: the discovery of rays that could travel through solid wood or flesh by the German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen in December 1895, and the discovery of rays emitted by minerals containing uranium by the French physicist Henri Becquerel a few months later. Scientists were amazed by Roentgen’s X-rays and they started to study them with great energy, and they ignored Becquerel’s rays, which seemed much the same, only weaker. Marie decided to investigate the uranium rays, and she began experimenting right away since there was so little work on them for her to read about.
First Marie needed a lab. She had to settle for a storeroom in the Paris Municipal School, where her husband, Pierre Curie, was now a professor. The storeroom was crowded and damp, but somehow she had to overcome its problems. She started off by studying a variety of chemical compounds that contained uranium. She discovered that the strength of the rays that came out depended only on the amount of uranium in the compound. It had nothing to do with whether the material’s properties. Marie found this very strange. She puzzled over it, trying out every possible idea, and suspected that something was happening inside uranium atoms that gave rise to rays. And not only inside uranium! Trying out various chemicals, Marie found that compounds that contained an uncommon element, thorium, also gave off rays. To describe the behavior of these two elements, Marie made up the term radioactivity.
During the course of her research, she examined not only simple compounds, salts and oxides, but also a great number of minerals.
Certain ones proved radioactive; these were those containing uranium and thorium; but their radioactivity seemed abnormal, for it was much greater than the expected amount she had found in uranium and thorium. This abnormality greatly surprised her. When she had assured herself that it was not due to an error in the experiment, it became necessary to find an explanation. She then made the hypothesis that the ores uranium and thorium contain in small quantity a substance much more strongly radioactive than either uranium or thorium. This substance could not be one of the known elements, because these had already been examined; it must, therefore, be a new chemical element!
The Discovery and The Hard Work
The Curies were like detectives searching for a suspected criminal in a crowded street. They worked as a team, each responsible for a specific task. They had no idea what the new element would be like, except that it was radioactive. After long labor they succeeded in finding not one but two new elements! In July 1898 they published a paper revealing their first discovery. They honored Marie’s native land by naming the element polonium. That December they announced the second new element, which they named radium from the Latin word for ray. The public and industrialists were fascinated by the Curies’ discoveries. Radium, inexhaustibly giving out energy, hinted at great mysteries and perhaps amazing inventions. Moreover, Pierre proved that radium could damage living flesh, which opened a new way to treat cancer and several diseases.
After their amazing discovery, the great scientists found troubles in providing convenient environments for Radium isolation and extraction. The School of Physics could give them no suitable premises, but for lack of anything better, the Director permitted them to use an abandoned shed which had been in service as a dissecting room of the School of Medicine. Marie also wrote about this:
And After. . .
In August 1914, Germany invaded France. Nearly all of Curie’s staff at the Radium Institute enlisted in the war effort. Scientific research had to halt during the World War, and Curie looked for ways her science could help. She knew that doctors could use X-rays to save the lives of wounded soldiers by revealing bullets, shrapnel, and broken bones. The problem was to get the X-ray machines to the doctors near the Front. Curie talked wealthy people into donating their cars, and assembled a fleet of 20 mobile X-ray stations as well as 200 stationary stations.
After the war ended in 1918, Marie Curie went back to doing whatever she could to raise money for the Radium Institute. She was becoming a living legend, and she resolved to make the most of her fame. The tale of her early struggles could inspire people to give scientists more help. As the tale was retold, it sometimes sounded as if she had done everything single-handed, although in fact she had relied, like nearly all scientists, on private and government funds and assistants.
To go further, read in Women you should know, 112 Years Ago Today Marie Curie Announced Her Discovery Of Radium And Made History