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Lawrence Badash Becquerel’s Blunder INTRODUCTION THE DISCOVERY BY WILHELM CONRAD RÖNTGEN OF X-RAYS IN LATE 1895 was the most globally astonishing scientific event prior to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.* Some 50 books and pamphlets and 1,000 papers on X-rays were published in 1896 alone, remarkable testimony to the impact of these penetrating rays.1 By contrast, Henri Becquerel, who discovered radioactivity just a few months later, wrote seven papers on the subject in 1896, only two the following year, and then left this seemingly exhausted topic. Others added several papers in this period, but amidst the plethora of various radiations being studied at that time, the radiations from uranium did not seem extraordinary (Badash, 1965a). Especially, uranium rays could not produce the sharp images of bones through the flesh of a living hand that made X-rays so intensely fascinating. Not until Gerhard C. Schmidt and Marie Curie in 1898 independently reported that thorium exhibited the same properties as uranium was interest in radioactivity resurrected, drawing Becquerel and many others back to his discovery. Over the next century, X-rays were used in increasingly sophisti­ cated medical imaging devices, applied to test the integrity ofwelds and other structures, told us more about the nature of atoms (the impor­ tance of atomic number) through Henry Moseley’s examination oftheir spectra, and led to the revolution in molecular biology through X-ray crystallography. Again by contrast, radioactivity seemingly was left in the dust. Aside from radium’s sometimes successful medical applica­ tion in the treatm ent of cancer and other diseases, it appeared to have limited import: a pre-World War I use in luminous paint for such show­ social research Vol 72 : No 1 : Spring 2005 31 biz items as poker chips, cocktails, and nightclub dancers’ costumes, and its wartime employment in luminous watches and gun sights (Badash, 1978). During the decades before World War II, however, phys­ icists and chemists determined that there was a nucleus to the atom and that nuclear reactions could be induced, and they gained an under­ standing of the components of the nucleus. The discovery of nuclear fission in late 1938, coupled with the fears of war, led to projects in several countries that ultimately produced both nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors. Then, for nearly half a century, the bomb dominated international relations among the developed countries, in particular the superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. The discoveries by Röntgen and Becquerel thus were both extremely important to society, but that of radioactivity had a far more significant impact on science and the world. It is therefore worthwhile to look more closely at what constitutes discovery and what Becquerel thought he was doing. BACKGROUND TO THE DISCOVERY For some time, those who study nature have recognized that the truths of science are written with a lower-case t, not a capital T. In practice this means that our understanding ofNature is not permanent; it is influenced by the ideas and apparatus at our disposal. More insightful thoughts, new data, and more powerful tools have changed the paradigm. This suggests that a large percentage of past scientific ideas have been modified, and that many current beliefs will be changed in the future. Scientific error thus is common, if not almost the norm. Why then are we fascinated by scientific mistakes if they are so plenti­ ful? It is not because we wish to gloat with the wisdom of hindsight. Rather, these examples provide us with insights. We learn what were the contemporary beliefs and practices that influenced a new interpre­ tation of Nature, and we see, gratifyingly, that scientific research is a very human enterprise: scientists can fixate possessively on an idea that brought them a measure of fame and ignore other viewpoints that are equally reasonable. We may also speculate whether the mistake 32 social research hindered the development of science or actually inspired increased activity. For a successful theory should not merely explain existing data but suggest new research to be performed. Success need not be congru­ ent with a later consensus of truth. The discovery ofradioactivity by Antoine Henri Becquerel...


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