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Dec 28, 2020
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The ubiquitous X-rays. How one scientist thrilled all the women of the world

Exactly 125 years ago in the scientific journal “Annals of Physics and Chemistry” an article “On a new type of radiation” was published. It reported on the results of the study of unknown rays. The scientific community was agitated. A few days later, the public, far from science, was also excited: the press wrote about the discovery, accompanying the publication with an eerie snapshot of a bony hand with a ring on its finger. The hand belonged to the German’s wife physicist Wilhelm Röntgen, whose last name we used to pronounce as “Rentgen”. He was the author of the sensation.

Photo of Albert von Kölliker's hand taken by Roentgen on January 23, 1896
A photograph of Albert von Kölliker’s hand taken by Roentgen on January 23, 1896. Source: Public Domain

A discovery made by accident

The article in the Annals, published on December 28, 1895, was the result of a study that took the physicist several weeks. The discovery itself was made by William Röntgen on November 8.

That evening, he experimented with electrical discharges in glass vacuum tubes. Having darkened the room, the scientist wrapped one of the tubes with thick black paper to better see the optical phenomena. By midnight he decided to leave the laboratory, but noticed a glowing spot on the screen, covered with a layer of platinum-blue barium. It turned out that the professor had forgotten to turn off the cathode tube. She also produced radiation that penetrated through thick paper.

Further research showed that the mysterious rays pass freely through any materials – metal, glass, soft human tissues. Roentgen called them X-rays. Next year, more than a thousand scientific articles will be written about radiation, the range of which lies on the scale of electromagnetic waves between ultraviolet and gamma radiation, and doctors will quickly take this invention into service, because with the help of X-rays you can shine through a person and find, for example , bone fractures. Already on January 20, 1896, this method was used in practice: after making an X-ray of a patient with a broken arm, doctors will give him the correct diagnosis.

William Röntgen published three articles on X-rays, and a little over a year later he lost interest in his own discovery, considering that he had nothing more to add. But the scientific community appreciated the importance of the invention: in 1901, the scientist became the first ever Nobel Prize winner in physics.

“Shameless” binoculars and “anti-X-ray” underwear

At that time it was not known about the danger for a living organism of ionizing radiation, which includes X-rays, and an unprecedented excitement was created around X-rays. Their ability to penetrate human flesh and any material seemed fantastic and excited the imagination. And for women – for obvious reasons – it caused anxiety and excitement.

To the famous American inventor Thomas Edison more than once they asked to make “shameless” binoculars that would make it possible to contemplate the human body without clothes. The hype was such that in the United States, Senators seriously discussed a bill banning the use of X-rays in theater binoculars.

Scammers and just enterprising people revived. Clothes and hats appeared on the market, supposedly protecting their owners from the ubiquitous rays. One English businessman was selling lingerie, attributing “anti-X-ray” properties to it. Say, no one can take a picture of a naked lady when she is in it. The underwear was completely ordinary, but to find out about it, it was necessary to subject it to a scientific experiment. It is clear that no one was puzzled by this – the goods were going with a bang.

There were enough curiosities. One soldier wrote a letter to William Röntgen. He complained that after the battles a bullet remained in his chest, and wanted to find out exactly where she sat down. “Could you send me some of your rays? – asked the soldier. “Just explain how to use them.” – “It’s not possible,” Röntgen answered him, “but there is a way out: you can send me your chest.”

In the first half of the twentieth century, devices for trying on shoes equipped with an X-ray source were ubiquitous. A foot was inserted into the hole, and, looking through the window, it was possible to assess how well the boot sits, whether it squeezes the leg. Stores lured customers with posters that they had an X-ray machine. By the way, there were similar devices in Moscow, in the shoe departments of GUM – both adults and children. They began to be massively withdrawn from retail outlets and workshops only in the early 1960s, when the harm of radiation was already obvious to everyone.

Enlighten anything

Today fluoroscopy is used in many fields. The main one, of course, is medicine. With the help of X-rays, pathologies inside the body are found, and many diseases (infectious, neoplastic, inflammatory) and injuries are recognized. X-rays are at the heart of the computed tomography (CT) technique that has received worldwide attention this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The patient’s body is illuminated with rays, and the data on how the tissues absorb them are reconstructed by a computer into a 3D image. The method is especially important for the diagnosis of stroke.

X-ray as a type of radiation therapy is used to treat malignant tumors. Due to its ionizing effect, cancerous tumors can be destroyed. A relatively new direction is the use of soft X-ray radiation. It allows you to “see” blood vessels, study in detail the structure of soft tissues and conduct research at the cellular level.

A lot of applications in engineering and construction. The ability to see through anything makes it possible to visualize the internal structure of an opaque object, made, for example, of metal. When it is impossible to determine by eye whether the bridge structure is firmly welded, whether the seam at the pipeline is tight and whether the rails fit tightly to each other, the same X-rays will help. With the help of X-rays, numerous defects are detected, cracks, voids and fractures are looked for, and the correct arrangement of elements is checked.

All-penetrating rays make it possible to determine the chemical composition of a substance. Any of us, passing through security checks at the airport, is faced with this: X-ray scanners monitor if there are any weapons, drugs, ammunition and dangerous items in the passenger and carry-on baggage. And in art criticism, radiation is used to search for hidden images in paintings, to study traces of restoration of the canvas and the “handwriting” of the artist. The method makes it possible to look under the upper layers of the picture without harming it. What is hidden under the paint often provides invaluable information to experts and can tell a lot about the history of the creation of the canvas. What’s more, X-rays can accurately date artwork and identify counterfeits.

Fluoroscopy has become so ubiquitous that with its help some manufacturers of luxury clothing shine through it before packaging – looking for accidentally left needles and pins. And baby food manufacturers check the even distribution of raisins in porridge briquettes.

Obviously, this is the case when the Nobel Committee appreciated the importance of scientific discovery in a completely case-by-case manner.

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