(December 15, 1852 – August 25, 1908)

Henri Becquerel was an engineer who discovered radioactivity by happenstance. But his prepared mind quickly seized the opportunity. His earlier doctorate thesis on plane polarization of light had left him with unquenchable appetite for phosphorescence investigations. So, after Wilhelm Roentgen confirmed his X-ray discovery in 1896, Becquerel wondered if uranium salts (which are phosphorescent), emit X-ray-like radiations. Few months later, he stumbled onto uranium’s powerful radioactive properties: while searching for X-rays in its salts. The joint radioactive researches he conducted with Pierre and Marie Curie would earn them the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics. But apart from Nobel Prize, Henri Becquerel shared ‘scientific-dynasties’ with the “Curies”. Pierre and Marie Curie, alongside their daughter (Irène Joliot-Curie), and grandchildren (Pierre Joliot and Hélèn Langevin-Joliot) were all prominent scientists. Likewise, Henri Becquerel’s grandfather (Antoine Becquerel) and father (Alexandre Becquerel) were accomplished researchers who contributed significantly to physics. Even his son (Jean Becquerel) left a lasting mark: through his works on optico-magnetic properties of crystals. Interestingly, each of these four “Becquerels” occupied the physics chair at the prestigious Muséum National d’ Histoire Naturelle in France. But the untimely death of Henri Becquerel in 1908, preceded by Pierre Curie’s in 1906, robbed both men of loftier careers. It also left Marie Curie ‘feeling lonely’ in the wilderness of radioactive research. The fact that she went on to become the greatest female scientist left me wondering what might have become of Henri and Pierre, had they not died too early. Becquerel was designated the S.I. unit for radioactivity.

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