Welcome to Atomic Rocks your one stop shop for radioactive mineral specimens and information on radiation. On this site you will find a wealth of material dealing with radioactive minerals, safe handling of those minerals, the history of radiation,  government rules and regulations, dosimetry , and geiger counters.  If you want some excitement and adventure, then check out the atomic field trips page and the nuclear multimedia gallery. For those that want to know more about radioactive collectables then check out this book called "Living with Radiation: The First Hundred Years".

The Discovery of Radiation*

In November of 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen was working in his laboratory using a Crookes tube when he noticed that a sample of barium platinocyanide,  gave off a fluorescent glow. As the Crookes tube was covered at the time, Roentgen was puzzled as to the mechanism whereby the platinum compound was being stimulated to glow. After carrying out a series of exceptionally careful experiments, Roentgen realized that the Crookes tube was emitting a new kind of radiation which he described as "X-rays".

The following year, Henri Becquerel  discovered that a piece of the ore pitchblend caused a photographic plate to be exposed, even when the pitchblend was wrapped in paper or tin foil (remember, aluminum was very new and terribly expensive at this time.) Although this discovery was greeted with a good bit of skepticism at the time, Becquerel convinced Pierre and Marie Curie to undertake the separation of the active materials from the pitchblend. Becquerel and the Curies shared the 1903 Nobel Prize.

Marie Sklodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland and moved to Paris to study mathematics, physics and chemistry. There she met Pierre Curie who was teaching physics at the time. The two were married shortly thereafter and became the model for a scientific collaboration. Prompted by Becquerel, the Curie's undertook the isolation of the naturally radioactive material in pitchblend. They quickly realized that the uranium known to be in this ore was not sufficiently radioactive to account fo the properties of the ore, they isolated both radium and polonium, two highly radioactive daughter products of uranium. 

At this time there was no understanding of the dangers of handling highly radioactive materials, and the Curie's hands became burned and scared by the radiation. The Curie's laboratory was little more than a shed near Marie's original storeroom laboratory. It leaked, had poor ventilation (perhaps a good thing as it allowed the radon to escape into the air) and was miserably cold in the winter. Dispite the discomforts, the result of this work was glorious to the Curie's and Marie describes her excitement in the following way:

"One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night, we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silouettes of the bottles or capsules containing our products. It was a lovely sight and always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint fairy lights."

The Curie's and Ernst Rutherford who had been a research student working for J. J. Thompson, and was at this time a professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, corresponded a great deal and the samples of radium used by Rutherford came from the Curie's. Working separately they established that there appeared to be three kinds of rays emitted by the radioactive samples, as determined by how the rays responded to a magnetic field. This experiment, a modification of Thompson's experiment, placed a sample of radium (or an impure sample containing radium and other radioactive materials) in a vacuum tube identical to a Crookes tube except that it didn't have a cathode or anode. The radium was the source of the rays. When a magnet was placed around the tube along the path the rays had to travel, it was found that one set of rays was unaffected by the field (later called gamma rays), while a second set bent in one direction and yet a third set bent in the other direction. Later work established that one of the rays (called beta rays by Rutherford) behaved exactly like cathode rays while a second set (alpha rays) appared to be positively charged and much heavier (based on their curvature in the field) than the beta rays.

* See credits page











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