(December 15, 1852 – August 25, 1908)

Henri Becquerel’s grandfather (Antoine Becquerel) and father (Alexandre Becquerel) were prominent scientists who contributed significantly to physics. Even his son (Jean Becquerel) left a lasting mark in the field, 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 deaths of Henri Becquerel in 1908, and Pierre Curie two years earlier, robbed both men of probable loftier careers in physics. It also left Marie Curie feeling lonely in the wilderness of radioactivity. The fact that she went on to become the greatest female scientist left some of us wondering what would have become of Henri and Pierre, had they not died in their primes. Henri Becquerel was an engineer who discovered radioactivity by happenstance. But his prepared mind was quick to grasp the novelty. His earlier thesis on plane polarization of light (as a doctorate candidate) had left him with an unquenchable appetite in phosphorescence. And after Wilhelm Roentgen confirmed his x-ray discovery in January of 1896, Becquerel wondered if uranium salts (which are phosphorescent), might emit x-ray-like radiations. Few months later, he stumbled into uranium’s powerful radioactive properties: while searching for x-rays in its salts.

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