Henri Becquerel: Biography & Discovery

Instructor: Danielle Reid

Danielle has taught middle school science and has a doctorate degree in Environmental Health

Learn about the life and work of Henri Becquerel, a pioneer in the field of nuclear chemistry and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics. Understand Becquerel's important contributions to the discovery of radioactivity. Test your knowledge by taking a short quiz at the end of the lesson.

The Life of Henri Becquerel

Born on December 15, 1852 in Paris, Henri Becquerel belonged to a long lineage of distinguished scholars and scientists. His father was an accomplished Professor of Applied Physics who researched solar radiation. His grandfather helped invent a process used to extract metals from metal ores. With a rich scientific bloodline running through his lineage, Becquerel found it natural to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

Henri Becquerel
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A timeline of major events in Henri Becquerel's life is shown here. This provides a great snapshot of his life as an accomplished scientist.

Timeline of Major Events in the Life of Henri Becquerel, 1852-1908
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Taking a similar educational route as his father and grandfather, Becquerel studied engineering at Polytechnic. He entered the school in 1872 and left in 1874, but later returned to continue his academic pursuits. He successfully graduated with his Doctorate in Applied Physics in 1888. His thesis focused on solar radiation and phosphorescence. Phosphorescence is a phenomenon in which a substance emits light following exposure to radiation, and continues to exhibit an afterglow once radiation is removed.

In 1892, Becquerel began his first appointment as Professor of Applied Physics at the Department of Natural History at the Paris Museum. In 1895, he transitioned to a professorship appointment at Polytechnic. There, his thesis served as the basis of a research project that would later lead to major contributions in the field of nuclear chemistry and in the discovery of radioactivity.

Becquerel married twice. His first marriage was to Lucie Zoé Marie Jamin in 1874. His son Jean, born in 1878, shortly before his first wife's death, continued with the Becquerel family tradition of pursuing science as a fourth-generation physicist. In 1890, he married Louise Desiree Lorieux. Henri Becquerel, alongside scientists Pierre and Marie Currie, received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his role in the discovery of radioactivity. In addition to being awarded this prestigious prize during his lifetime, he also received numerous posthumous awards.

Have you ever heard of the unit called a Becquerel? That's right, it's a unit measure of radioactivity. In honor of Henri Becquerel's work and contributions to science, this unit was named after him. Given what we know about Becquerel, let's focus more on what he researched and why it was so important to the field of nuclear chemistry.

Discovery of Radioactivity: Becquerel's Contribution

Building on his original doctoral thesis, Henri Becquerel conducted the following experiment, shown in the image here. This experiment pioneered the path towards understanding radioactivity. Radioactivity is a process during which unstable nuclei release energy.

Becquerel Experiment
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During the year of 1896, Becquerel was in the laboratory experimenting with a crystal containing uranium. Taking the crystal, he exposed it to sunlight for an extended period of time. Following exposure, he placed it on a photographic plate. A photographic plate is a metal or glass sheet used to record a photographic image. In accord with what he thought would happen, the crystal created an image on the plate.

From this experiment, Henri theorized that uranium crystals were releasing energy absorbed from the sun, in the form of X-rays. Of course, he was eager to repeat this experiment, but there was one minor problem: Mother Nature prevented him from doing so. Needing sunlight to perform the experiment, he had no choice but to wait until the weather was just right. He decided to place his uranium sample and photographic plate in a closed drawer, and wait until the cloudy weather passed.

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