By: Scott RossPublished: November 8, 2022

Wilhelm Röntgen

Wilhelm Röntgen study physics at the University of Utrecht before moving on to get his PhD in mechanical engineering at the University of Zurich. He was in short a man of science, a man who understood deeply the maxim "Fuck around and find out." It was in this spirit that in 1895, he made his towering contribution to humanity.

On November 8 of that year, he was in his lab at the University of Würzburg passing electrical currents through low-pressure gas. This was an extension of the work done by Eugen Goldstein and others that had led to the discovery of cathode rays (without which we'd've had not TV, so show some respect).

Röntgen decided to wrap up his cathode tube so that it was completely shrouded in darkness, then cover a piece of paper with barium platinocyanide and set it about six feet away from the tube. This fucking around led Röntgen to find out that when he sent a charge through the tube, the paper took on a fluorescent glow. Curious to see what he could make of this strange magic, he convinced his wife, Anna, to hold her hand between the tube and a new piece paper, just to see what would happen. What happened was the very first x-ray. Upon seeing the shadow cast by her bones and wedding ring, Anna is reported to have said, “I have seen my death.” (She lived to be 80.)

Why did Röntgen call these newly discovered rays of light "x-rays"? Cuz he didn't know what the hell they were. Röntgen's efforts were rewarded in 1901 with the very first Nobel Prize in Physics.


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