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Arthur Molella, Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director

Governments and corporations are spending billions of dollars today on research and development to find energy alternatives to oil. Some are even calling for a crash program on the order of America's race to the moon or the war on cancer. But it is helpful to remember that many fundamental breakthroughs are the result of happy accidents. It is no surprise that "serendipity" is very much on the minds these days of students of the innovation process.

A prime example is the discovery of radioactivity in 1896 by Henri Becquerel (1852-1908). August marked the 100th anniversary of the great French physicist's death. Although remembered primarily for this one momentous discovery, he spent many years studying phosphorescence--the familiar glow-in-the-dark effect associated with certain materials when they absorb and later release light. Inspired by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen's discovery of X-rays in late 1895, Becquerel wanted to see if phosphorescent compounds also emitted penetrating X-rays. In other words, was there a basic connection between the effects?

Accordingly, he wrapped a photographic plate in opaque black paper and placed on it a phosphorescent salt of uranium. He exposed the "package" to sunlight and, sure enough, found an image of the uranium salt crystal on the photographic plate. However, to his amazement, he found the same image imprinted on the plate of an unused package that had been stored overnight in a light-tight drawer. Where did the rays come from, if not stimulated by light? Becquerel's genius was to be prepared for the unexpected: he gave up his original hypothesis linking phosphorescence to X-rays and announced a new kind of ray, called "Becquerel rays" in his honor. "Chance favors the prepared mind," Louis Pasteur said, and no discovery is strictly by chance.

Becquerel's announcement received little attention at first, primarily because the discovery was not seen as particularly useful. Even Becquerel himself soon dropped the subject. Not until Marie Curie pursued the phenomenon, which she dubbed radioactivity, and discovered the powerfully radioactive elements radium and polonium did the new rays capture the imaginations of scientists and public alike. The 1903 Nobel Prize shared by Becquerel with Marie Curie and Pierre Curie recognized the research. The way was opened for nuclear physics and the enormous potential of nuclear energy, from nuclear medicine and nuclear power to the atomic bomb. Could it be that the answer to today's petroleum crisis is lying in someone's drawer, just waiting to be discovered?

[From Prototype, September 2008]

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