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Discovery Of Radium By Marie And Pierre Curie

discovery of radium
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The discovery of radium dates back to December 21, 1898. This radioactive element was discovered by the Nobel Prize winners Marie Sklodowska-Curie and her husband Pierre Curie. This discovery was a milestone in history and led to several other important scientific developments later in the future. 

What Is Radium?

The name ‘Radium’ of the chemical element is derived from the word ‘radius’ in Latin which means ‘ray’. This metallic element is quite rare, silvery-white in color, luminescent, and highly radioactive. Radium’s atomic number is 88 and this radioactive metal is a part of the alkaline earth metals series.

discovery of radium


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Discovery Of Radium

In 1898, Marie Curie was researching the radiation phenomena that Becquerel discovered. She discovered that a mineral named pitchblende, which contained uranium and thorium, was much more radioactive than these two elements could be accounted for. She was confident that if pitchblende was carefully analyzed, it would lead to the discovery of a new radioactive element that could account for the excessive radiation being emitted by pitchblende. Pierre Curie joined his wife in the search for this unknown element. 

Standard chemical procedures were used by the couple to separate the various substances present in pitchblende. Once the substances were separated into different compounds, they used an innovative way of chemical analysis. Using the measurements obtained by the Curie electrometer, they found out which parts of the compounds were most radioactive. They kept separating till they were able to track down the unknown element due to its highly radioactive nature. 

discovery of radium

This led to the discovery of two new radioactive elements. One was named ‘Polonium’ which was similar to Bismuth in terms of chemical properties. Polonium however was discovered in July 1898. But it did not account for all the radiation in pitchblende. It was then in December 1898, when history was made by the Curies with the discovery of radium on the 21st, just a few days before Christmas. Pierre Curie first scratched the name Radium on a notebook and this notebook is still considered to be highly dangerous and radioactive. On December 26, 1898, the discovery of radium was announced to the world by the Curies. 

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Greatest Discovery After Oxygen?

Several chemists considered that the discovery of radium and its isolation was the greatest since oxygen was discovered. The discovery of radium was believed to revolutionize chemistry and the discovery is considered to be highly important because of the various ways in which this chemical element can be used. 

Pierre himself demonstrated how the radioactive element radium could be used for treating cancer patients. He bound to his arm wrapped radium salts sample in thin rubber covering. This he did for ten hours after which his wound was studied. This wound resembled a burn and after 52 days, there remained a gray-colored scar which was permanent. Through this, he mentioned that cancer could be effectively treated by using radium. 

discovery of radium

Today Radium is used to treat prostate cancer when it gets spread to the bones, as it can be used to target the cancerous bone cells. The alpha particles given off by radium effectively kill the cancerous cells. It is also sometimes used in the production of luminous paints. 

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Curie Couple’s Contribution to Science

Both Marie Curie and Pierre Curie were awarded half the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 for this discovery while the other half was awarded to Professor Henri Becquerel for discovering the phenomena of spontaneous radioactivity which ultimately led to the discovery of radium.

discovery of radium

In 1895, she also created portable X-ray machines which were smaller than ones discovered by German scientist Wilhelm Roentgen. The ones discovered by Marie Curie could easily be used by medics in the field which in turn saved many lives during the war. She also coined the term ‘Radioactivity’. 

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In 1911, Marie Curie again won the Nobel Prize. This time she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her production of radium in the form of a pure metal, which undoubtedly confirmed the existence of the new element. 

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