There have been a number of instances in the history of mankind in which a scientist is working in his lab studying a particular phenomenon but ends up discovering something that he never intended to and that *something* makes him world famous and becomes that discovery becomes the turning point in the history. Exactly 123 years ago, in the afternoon of November 8, 1895, a similar incident happened that became a milestone in the world of science and technology.
What Exactly Happened?
There was a German scientist named Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen. In 1895, he was working on the effects of cathode rays. His experiments involved passing an electric current in a discharge tube at a very low pressure. He was working with different tubes by Tesla, Lenard, Crookes, Hittorf and Hertz. During the experiment, he had to make sure that the entire room is dark and the discharge tube is well covered. So on November 8, he was working with one of Lenard’s tube in a dark room. While performing the experiment, he was astonished when he saw an illuminated screen of barium platinocyanide 2 meters away.
He was shocked because the room was totally dark and there was no source of light. Even the discharge tube he was working with was perfectly covered with a cardboard. Roentgen thought of repeating the experiment with Crookes tube and found a similar result. He stayed in his laboratory that day and further investigated this phenomenon. He speculated that a new kind of ray might be responsible. He continued his experiments using photographic plate to capture the image of various objects of random thickness placed in the path of the rays. In the following weeks he ate and slept in his laboratory as he investigated many properties of the new rays he temporarily termed “X-rays”, using the mathematical designation (“X”) for something unknown. The new rays came to bear his name in many languages as “Röntgen rays”.
At one point while he was investigating the ability of various materials to stop the rays, Röntgen brought a small piece of lead into position while a discharge was occurring. Röntgen thus saw the first radiographic image, his own flickering ghostly skeleton on the barium platinocyanide screen. He later reported that it was at this point that he determined to continue his experiments in secrecy, because he feared for his professional reputation if his observations were in error.
Nearly two weeks after his discovery, he took the very first picture using X-rays of his wife Anna Bertha’s hand. When she saw her skeleton she exclaimed “I have seen my death!” The image below shoes this first medical X-ray image of her hand.
The First Nobel Prize In Physics
This discovery in 1895 earned Roentgen the first Nobel Prize in Physics in the year 1901. his was a true acknowledgement of his remarkable discovery which was going to be highly beneficial for mankind in the coming years.
Why Was This Discovery So Important?
The discovery of X-rays enabled us to take the first pictures of the human skeleton, a remarkable feat in itself. The first medical use was less than a month after his paper on the subject. Computed Tomography (CT scanning), Fluoroscopy and radiotherapy emerged subsequently. Apart from medical applications, this discovery later opened the gates to a new branch of astronomy: X-Ray astronomy. In solid state physics, it found applications in X-ray crystallography. Other applications include airport security, border control and X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy.
The Takeaway Lesson
Just keep doing your work without expectations. You never know, when you’ll stumble upon a breakthrough!