The Wonder of Radioactivity

Published on 24 February 2021 at 12:00

Radioactivity has been responsible for some of the biggest disasters in our History. The atomic bomb of New Mexico in July 16th 1945, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th of 1945, the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, to name a few.


When the theory of radioactivity was developed by Pierre and Marie Curie, this certainly wasn’t what they had hoped their discovery would allow. Receiving the Nobel prize in 1903, Pierre Curie, acknowledging such risks, said: “I am one of those who believe with Nobel that mankind will derive more good than harm from the new discoveries. » 


A Physics Nobel prize was won by Henri Becquerel, Marie Curie and Pierre Curie, for developing the theory of radioactivity. Later on, in 1911, Marie Curie won another Nobel prize, for Chemistry, for the discovery of polonium and radium. She is still to this day the only person to have ever won Nobel prizes in multiple natural sciences. She was the 1st woman to ever win a Nobel and ever teach at the University of Paris, as well as the first woman buried in the Panthéon in Paris for her own achievements.


X-Rays were developed by Wilhelm Röntgen, as he noticed glowing without a source of energy. He published “On a New kind of rays” which granted him an honorary medical doctorate in 1901 and the 1st Nobel prize in physics. This technique is used to this day in radiology, using radiation to see inside the body.


Antoine Henri Becquerel had been experiencing on phosphorescence, hitting materials with light to make them show new colours. He reasoned some of the phosphorescence was related to Röntgen’s X ray. So, he used uranium and realized using photography that some materials naturally gave out rays. Uranium left impressions on a photographic plate by being near it. There was energy acting: radiation. 


Marie Curie soon found that strength of radiation solely depended on elements quantity and wasn’t affected by physical or chemical changes. Radiation was coming from within the atoms. The Curies though realized uranium alone couldn’t be creating all the radiation. In 1898, they reported two new elements: Polonium (in honour of Poland) and Radium (from the Latin word for Ray). By 1902, the Curies had extracted a tenth of a gram of pure radium chloride salt from several tons of pitchblende.


Marie used a sensitive electrometer which measured electric charge and was developed by Pierre. She found that uranium gave off rays that made the very air conduct electricity. Her work also shows that the only thing that mattered in terms of this effect was how much uranium was present. The uranium didn’t have to interact with anything to give off energy and change electromagnetic fields.


Marie Curie came up with the 1st theory as to radioactivity, stating that in some substances, atoms themselves must be breaking down slowly releasing energy. This was foundational for modern physics. It rebutted the long-lasting assumption that the atom was an indivisible unit of matter. Her theory violated the immutability of atoms, which she argued could be split.


Marie used radioactive material to treat cancer. When the great war broke in 1914, Marie set a mobile radiography unit meaning with ray systems to help field doctors treat soldiers, and investigated radiation effects on tumours. Radioactivity is beneficial when it comes to medical tests and treatments. Radiation can help find and destroy tumours within the body or slow their growth.


However, Ionizing radiation can affect the atoms in living things, can damage tissue and DNA in genes. Radiation damages your stomach and intestines, blood vessels, and bone marrow, which makes blood cells. Damage to bone marrow lowers the number of disease-fighting white blood cells in your body. As a result, most people who die from radiation sickness are killed by infections or internal bleeding


Today, radiation is used in medicine, academics, industry, and for generating electricity. It has useful applications, among others, in agriculture, archaeology (through carbon dating), space exploration and geology. 


Nuclear power plants boil water to produce steam to power a generator to produce electricity. The energy needed to boil water into steam is produced by splitting atoms of uranium in a nuclear power plant. The uranium fuel generates heat through fission


Foods and medical equipment are exposed to radiation to kill germs without harming the substance being disinfected, and without making it radioactive. Ultraviolet light is already used to disinfect drinking water in some homes.


Radiation is used to help remove toxic pollutants and also benefits the agricultural industry, as radiation can be used to control insect populations, decreasing the use of pesticides. 


Radioactivity led to historic labour laws protecting workers from unsafe workplaces. 


This stems from the “Radium Girls”, women factory workers being employed in the early 20th century to paint watches. The United States Radium Corporation (USRC) used radium-containing paint to create glow-in-the-dark watches, popular with soldiers in World War I. Severe illnesses were experienced by such workers.


The discovery of radioactivity allowed a woman born at the beginning of the 19th century like Maria Skladowska, a Polish woman born under Russian occupation, to make history. 


A woman that wasn’t even supposed to get a proper education as the Russians outlawed lab science in school and the University of Warsaw didn’t admit women.  Marie went to a secret school, the ‘flying university’ and in 1891 joined her sister in Paris. She enrolled at the university of Paris and earned a degree in physics and Mathematics. She suffered hunger. As she needed a lab to work, she met Pierre. He admitted Marie was “his biggest discovery”.


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