Archive for History of Exact Sciences

, Volume 51, Issue 1, pp 67–81

Becquerel and the choice of uranium compounds


  • Roberto de Andrade Martins
    • Group of History and Theory of Science Instituto de Física “Gleb Wataghin”UNICAMP

DOI: 10.1007/BF00376452

Cite this article as:
de Andrade Martins, R. Arch. Hist. Exact Sci. (1997) 51: 67. doi:10.1007/BF00376452


The common assumption that Becquerel had no special reason to study uranium compounds in his search for substances emitting penetrating radiation cannot explain (a) Becquerel's own accounts, which refer to his choice as due to “the peculiar harmonic series of bands”; (b) Becquerel's systematic test of all uranium compounds (and metallic uranium), in contrast to his neglect of other substances; and (c) Becquerel's belief in invisible phosphorescence as an explanation of the radiation emitted by uranium compounds, even after his discovery that non-luminescent and metallic uranium also emit penetrating radiation.

By comparing Becquerel's older studies of uranium to his radioactivity research, this paper has presented a reconstruction that can explain all of these points above. According to the historical evidence presented here, it is likely that Becquerel concentrated his attention on uranium and its compounds because the mechanical theory of luminescence opened up the possibility that, precisely in the case of uranium and its compounds, a violation of Stokes's law could occur, and penetrating short-wavelength radiation could be emitted through a special type of phosphorescence.

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1997