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Henri Becquerel announced the discovery of radioactivity


Antoine Henri Becquerel was a physicist, Nobel laureate, and the discoverer of radioactivity. He received the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics. The SI unit for radioactivity, the becquerel (Bq), is named after him.

Becquerel was born in Paris into a family which produced four generations of scientists: Becquerel’s grandfather, and son. He studied engineering. 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 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.

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