In 1896, the French physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel (1852–1908) accidentally found that a uranium-rich mineral called pitchblende emits invisible, penetrating rays that can darken a photographic plate enclosed in an opaque envelope. The rays therefore carry energy; but amazingly, the pitchblende emits them continuously without any energy input. This is an apparent violation of the law of conservation of energy, one that we now understand is due to the conversion of a small amount of mass into energy, as related in Einstein’s famous equation $$\mathit{E}={\mathit{mc}}^{2}$$.

It was soon evident that Becquerel’s rays originate in the nuclei of the atoms and have other unique characteristics. The emission of these rays is called nuclear radioactivity or simply radioactivity. The rays themselves are called nuclear radiation. A nucleus that spontaneously destroys part of its mass to emit radiation is said to decay (a term also used to describe the emission of radiation by atoms in excited states). A substance or object that emits nuclear radiation is said to be radioactive.

Two types of experimental evidence imply that Becquerel’s rays originate deep in the heart (or nucleus) of an atom. First, the radiation is found to be associated with certain elements, such as uranium. Radiation does not vary with chemical state—that is, uranium is radioactive whether it is in the form of an element or compound. In addition, radiation does not vary with temperature, pressure, or ionization state of the uranium atom.

Since all of these factors affect electrons in an atom, the radiation cannot come from electron transitions, as atomic spectra do. The huge energy emitted during each event is the second piece of evidence that the radiation cannot be atomic. Nuclear radiation has energies of the order of $${\text{10}}^{6}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\text{eV}$$ per event, which is much greater than the typical atomic energies (a few $$\text{eV}$$), such as that observed in spectra and chemical reactions, and more than ten times as high as the most energetic characteristic x rays.

Becquerel did not vigorously pursue his discovery for very long. In 1898, Marie Curie (1867–1934), then a graduate student married the already well-known French physicist Pierre Curie (1859–1906), began her doctoral study of Becquerel’s rays. She and her husband soon discovered two new radioactive elements, which she named polonium (after her native land) and radium (because it radiates). These two new elements filled holes in the periodic table and, further, displayed much higher levels of radioactivity per gram of material than uranium. Over a period of four years, working under poor conditions and spending their own funds, the Curies processed more than a ton of uranium ore to isolate a gram of radium salt.

Radium became highly sought after, because it was about two million times as radioactive as uranium. Curie’s radium salt glowed visibly from the radiation that took its toll on them and other unaware researchers. Shortly after completing her Ph.D., both Curies and Becquerel shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics for their work on radioactivity. Pierre was killed in a horse cart accident in 1906, but Marie continued her study of radioactivity for nearly 30 more years.

Awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize in chemistry for her discovery of two new elements, she remains the only person to win Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry. Marie’s radioactive fingerprints on some pages of her notebooks can still expose film, and she suffered from radiation-induced lesions. She died of leukemia likely caused by radiation, but she was active in research almost until her death in 1934. The following year, her daughter and son-in-law, Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie, were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their discovery of artificially induced radiation, adding to a remarkable family legacy.