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By D M Brink; G R Satchler

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At that time it was considered very important to distinguish between atomic properties and molecular properties. Atomic properties were 25 A NEW SCIENCE presumed to be unchanging characteristics of individual atoms, while molecular properties characterized combinations of atoms, such as chemical compounds. As an atomic property, radioactivity would take its place among the established atomic properties of weight, spectra, and valence. Looking back, it is tempting to read more into the term atomic property than it meant at the time, and Marie Curie herself encouraged this extrapolation.

Curie’s colleague Sagnac had recently found that x rays were absorbed best by the heaviest elements. Since thorium and uranium were heavy elements, Curie’s idea fit well. Th inking the radiation might come from the sun, the Curies compared uranium’s activity at noon to its activity at midnight. At midnight, the radiation would need to pass through the earth to reach the uranium sample. If the earth absorbed some of this radiation, the midnight reading would be less than the reading at noon. However, the readings were identical.

Marie’s next goal was the doctorate degree. Intrigued by Henri Becquerel’s reports on uranium rays and wishing to pursue a topic which had not been studied extensively, she decided to investigate these rays for her dissertation. Figure 2-1. Marie Curie. Courtesy of the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, W. F. Meggers Gallery of Nobel Laureates. 22 THE CURIES Becquerel had used photography to investigate uranium rays, a medium which can produce striking images but is difficult to quantify. Marie decided instead to track the invisible rays through their electrical effects, a decision with far-reaching consequences.

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