Henri Becquerel

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Antoine Henri Becquerel
Portrait of Antoine-Henri Becquerel.jpg
Henri Becquerel, French physicist
Born (1852-12-15)15 December 1852
Paris, France
Died 25 August 1908(1908-08-25) (aged 55)
Le Croisic, Brittany, France
Nationality French
Fields Physics, chemistry
Institutions Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers
École Polytechnique
Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle
Alma mater École Polytechnique
École des Ponts et Chaussées
Doctoral students Marie Skłodowska-Curie
Known for Discovery of Radioactivity
Notable awards
Note that he is the father of Jean Becquerel, the son of A. E. Becquerel, and the grandson of Antoine César Becquerel.

Antoine Henri Becquerel (15 December 1852 – 25 August 1908) was a physicist, Nobel laureate, and the discoverer of radioactivity. For work in this field he, along with Marie Skłodowska-Curie and Pierre Curie,[2] received the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics. The SI unit for radioactivity, the becquerel (Bq), is named after him.


Early life[edit]

Becquerel was born in Paris into a family which produced four generations of scientists: Becquerel's grandfather (Antoine César Becquerel), father (Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel), and son (Jean Becquerel). He studied engineering at the École Polytechnique and the École des Ponts et Chaussées. In 1890 he married Louise Désirée Lorieux.


In 1892, he became the third in his family to occupy the physics chair at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle. In 1894, he became chief engineer in the Department of Bridges and Highways.

Becquerel's earliest works centered around the subject of his doctoral thesis: the plane polarization of light, with the phenomenon of phosphorescence and absorption of light by crystals.[3]

Becquerel's discovery of spontaneous radioactivity is a famous example of serendipity, of how chance favors the prepared mind. Becquerel had long been interested in phosphorescence, the emission of light of one color following a body's exposure to light of another color. In early 1896, in the wave of excitement following Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen's discovery of X-rays on January 5 that same year, Becquerel thought that phosphorescent materials, such as some uranium salts, might emit penetrating X-ray-like radiation when illuminated by bright sunlight. His first experiments appeared to show this.

Describing them to the French Academy of Sciences on February 24, 1896, he said:

One wraps a Lumière photographic plate with a bromide emulsion in two sheets of very thick black paper, such that the plate does not become clouded upon being exposed to the sun for a day. One places on the sheet of paper, on the outside, a slab of the phosphorescent substance, and one exposes the whole to the sun for several hours. When one then develops the photographic plate, one recognizes that the silhouette of the phosphorescent substance appears in black on the negative. If one places between the phosphorescent substance and the paper a piece of money or a metal screen pierced with a cut-out design, one sees the image of these objects appear on the negative ... One must conclude from these experiments that the phosphorescent substance in question emits rays which pass through the opaque paper and reduce silver salts.[4][5]

Becquerel in the lab

But further experiments led him to doubt and then abandon this hypothesis. On March 2, 1896 he reported

I will insist particularly upon the following fact, which seems to me quite important and beyond the phenomena which one could expect to observe: The same crystalline crusts [of potassium uranyl sulfate], arranged the same way with respect to the photographic plates, in the same conditions and through the same screens, but sheltered from the excitation of incident rays and kept in darkness, still produce the same photographic images. Here is how I was led to make this observation: among the preceding experiments, some had been prepared on Wednesday the 26th and Thursday the 27th of February, and since the sun was out only intermittently on these days, I kept the apparatuses prepared and returned the cases to the darkness of a bureau drawer, leaving in place the crusts of the uranium salt. Since the sun did not come out in the following days, I developed the photographic plates on the 1st of March, expecting to find the images very weak. Instead the silhouettes appeared with great intensity ... One hypothesis which presents itself to the mind naturally enough would be to suppose that these rays, whose effects have a great similarity to the effects produced by the rays studied by M. Lenard and M. Röntgen, are invisible rays emitted by phosphorescence and persisting infinitely longer than the duration of the luminous rays emitted by these bodies. However, the present experiments, without being contrary to this hypothesis, do not warrant this conclusion. I hope that the experiments which I am pursuing at the moment will be able to bring some clarification to this new class of phenomena.[6][7]

By May 1896, after other experiments involving non-phosphorescent uranium salts, he arrived at the correct explanation, namely that the penetrating radiation came from the uranium itself, without any need for excitation by an external energy source.[8]

There followed a period of intense research into radioactivity, including the determination that the element thorium is also radioactive and the discovery of additional radioactive elements polonium and radium by Marie Skłodowska-Curie and her husband Pierre Curie.

In 1903, Becquerel shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Pierre and Marie Skłodowska-Curie "in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by his discovery of spontaneous radioactivity".

As often happens in science, radioactivity came close to being discovered nearly four decades earlier in 1857, when Abel Niepce de Saint-Victor, who was investigating photography under Michel Eugène Chevreul, observed that uranium salts emitted radiation that could darken photographic emulsions.[9][10] By 1861, Niepce de Saint-Victor realized that uranium salts produce "a radiation that is invisible to our eyes".[11][12][13] Niepce de Saint-Victor knew Edmond Becquerel, Henri Becquerel's father. In 1868, Edmond Becquerel published a book, La lumière: ses causes et ses effets (Light: Its causes and its effects). On page 50 of volume 2, Edmond noted that Niepce de Saint-Victor had observed that some objects that had been exposed to sunlight could expose photographic plates even in the dark.[14] Niepce further noted that on the one hand, the effect was diminished if an obstruction were placed between a photographic plate and the object that had been exposed to the sun, but " … d'un autre côté, l'augmentation d'effet quand la surface insolée est couverte de substances facilement altérables à la lumière, comme le nitrate d'urane … " ( … on the other hand, the increase in the effect when the surface exposed to the sun is covered with substances that are easily altered by light, such as uranium nitrate … ).[15]

Honors and awards[edit]

Image of Becquerel's photographic plate which has been fogged by exposure to radiation from a uranium salt. The shadow of a metal Maltese Cross placed between the plate and the uranium salt is clearly visible.

In 1908, the year of his death, Becquerel was elected Permanent Secretary of the Académie des Sciences. He died at the age of 55 in Le Croisic.

The SI unit for radioactivity, the becquerel (Bq), is named after him. There is a crater called Becquerel on the Moon and also a crater called Becquerel on Mars.

He also received the following awards besides the Nobel Prize for Physics (1903):

Becquerel was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS) in 1908.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Fellows of the Royal Society". London: Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2015-03-16. 
  2. ^ "The Discovery of Radioactivity". Berkeley Lab. 
  3. ^ Henri Becquerel - Biographical. Nobelprize.org.
  4. ^ Henri Becquerel (1896). "Sur les radiations émises par phosphorescence". Comptes Rendus 122: 420–421. 
  5. ^ Comptes Rendus 122: 420 (1896), translated by Carmen Giunta. Accessed 10 September 2006.
  6. ^ Henri Becquerel (1896). "Sur les radiations émises par phosphorescence". Comptes Rendus 122: 501–503. 
  7. ^ Comptes Rendus 122: 501–503 (1896), translated by Carmen Giunta. Accessed 10 September 2006.
  8. ^ "This month in physics history March 1, 1896 Henri Becquerel discovers radioactivity". APS News 17:3. March 2008. 
  9. ^ Niepce de Saint-Victor (1857) "Mémoire sur une nouvelle action de la lumière" (On a new action of light), Comptes rendus ... , vol. 45, pages 811–815.
  10. ^ Niepce de Saint-Victor (1858) "Deuxième mémoire sur une nouvelle action de la lumière" (Second memoir on a new action of light), Comptes rendus ... , vol. 46, pages 448–452.
  11. ^ Niepce de Saint-Victor (1861) "Cinquième mémoire sur une nouvelle action de la lumière" (Fifth memoir on a new action of light), Comptes rendus ... , vol. 53, pages 33–35. From pages 34-35: " … cette activité persistante … ne peut mème pas être de la phosphorescence, car elle ne durerait pas si longtemps, d'après les expériences de M. Edmond Becquerel; il est donc plus probable que c'est un rayonnement invisible à nos yeux, … ." (" … this persistent activity … cannot be due to phosphorescence, for it [i.e., phosphorescence] would not last so long, according to the experiments of Mr. Edmond Becquerel; it is thus more likely that it is a radiation that is invisible to our eyes, … .")
  12. ^ "Y a-t-il encore polémique autour de la découverte des phénomènes dits radioactifs? (English: Is there still controversy about the discovery of radioactive phenomena?)". Science Tribune. June 1997. 
  13. ^ Rothman, Tony, Everything's Relative: And Other Fables from Science and Technology (New York, New York: Wiley, 2003) Chapter 5 "Invisible light: The discovery of radioactivity," pages 46–52. ISBN 0-471-20257-6 See also: Amazon.com .
  14. ^ In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, uranium was used to color glass and porcelain glaze. See:
  15. ^ Edmond Becquerel, La lumière: ses causes et ses effets, vol. 2 (Paris, France: F. Didot, 1868), page 50.

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