The cathode ray outdone: Radium discovered (1899)

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The cathode ray outdone

When the marvels of the cathode or X ray were made known to the world only a few years ago, it was believed we had reached a degree of photographic power that would not be surpassed for generations to come, and that for the use of surgeons in locating foreign substances embedded in flesh or bone it would be of permanent value.

Yet according to reports of experiments made by Professor Barker in Philadelphia a short time ago, that wonderful ray is about to become a back number because of the potency shown by a newly discovered element known as “radium.”

The discovery of the new element is due to M and Mme Curie, and is the result of investigations stimulated by the discovery of the X-ray. They were experimenting in 1898 with uranium and its salts, which exert a feeble photographic power, when the observed phenomena indicating the existence of an unknown factor in the mass. They at once directed their investigations to the separation of that element from the substances with which it was associated and found not one but two new elements.

To the first, they gave the name “polonium” and to the second “radium.” The first is believed to have a radiant power five hundred-fold greater than that of uranium. For this reason and because of its comparative cheapness and simplicity, the second of the Curies’ discoveries seems destined, it is said, to replace the costly and complicated X-ray apparatus in the realm of surgery.

The most extraordinary characteristic of the new element is thus described in an account of Professor Barker’s experiments by the New York Tribune:

“The practicability of deriving one form of energy — heat, light, electricity or chemical action — from some other has long been recognized, but it is axiomatic that none of them can be produced except by that method. It is believed that the most man can do is to transform. It is thought that he cannot, in any true sense, create.

Roentgen obtained his X-rays only by a conversion of force previously existing in the form of electricity. But a radiance which will penetrate opaque bodies and act upon the chemicals on a photographic plate is secured from radium without the apparent use of any known species of energy. The phenomenon may yet be explained. But at present, it looks very much like what has long been regarded an impossibility, the spontaneous generation of force.”

The discovery of unknown elements of such marvelous potencies at this late stage in the investigations of science is a striking proof of how little we know of the substances that lie around us or of the forces that act upon them. There is no telling what wide and high uses may yet be made of radium, but it is probable the discovery will be one of the most important gifts which this century will bestow for the guidance of science in that which is to come.

Photo: Madame Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie, shown in their lab

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