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The last accidental Nobel worthy discovery we looked at was the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Today we’ll look at one with a far more practical use: X-Rays

Wilhelm Röntgen was awarded the first ever Nobel prize for physics in 1901 for his discovery of X-rays.

X-rays had been observed before by several scientists but Röntgen was the first to investigate them in depth and to realise how they could be used in medicine.

Röntgen had been studying electron beams in a vacuum tube when he noticed something strange: when the electron beam was switched on, a fluorescent screen one metre away would glow, even though the tube was shielded in opaque cardboard.

Realising that he was witnessing an invisible form of radiation that could travel through cardboard, he conducted further experiments, temporarily naming the phenomenon ‘X-rays’.

Röntgen became so obsessed with understanding these mysterious rays he moved a bed into his laboratory. His sacrifice paid off when he discovered the two key features of X-rays: they turn photographic plates black and they are stopped by thick or dense materials. Armed with this knowledge he exposed his wife’s hand to X-rays and simultaneously produced the first image of the bones inside the human body and revolutionised medicine.

Although Röntgen’s temporary name ‘ X-rays’ stuck in English-speaking countries, both the Dutch (with Röntgenfoto) and the Germans  (with Röntgenstrahlen) recognise Röntgen’s pioneering efforts.  And he’s also been honoured with an element named after him – Roentgenium.

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