Today the word ‘radiation’ conjures up pictures of destruction. But in physics, it simply describes the emission, transmission and absorption of energy. And the discovery of how radiation works has allowed us to identify new chemical elements, treat cancer and work out what the stars are made of.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, physicists from Thomas Young through Michael Faraday to Henri Becquerel made discovery after discovery, gradually piecing together a radically new picture of reality. They explored the light beyond the visible spectrum, connected electricity and magnetism - and eventually showed that heat, light, radio and mysterious new phenomena like 'X-rays' were all forms of 'electromagnetic wave'.
In the early twentieth century, with the discovery of radioactivity, scientists like Max Planck and Ernest Rutherford completed the picture of the 'electromagnetic spectrum'. This was a cumulative achievement that transformed our vision of the physical world – and what we could do in it.
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