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The discovery of radium

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The discovery of radium

"This discovery will perhaps be of comparable significance for the future of civilisation as that which enabled man to harness the power of fire" - Paul Langevin, 1945

The discovery of radioactivity, a word invented by Marie Curie in 1898, was a major stage in the development of not just scientific thinking, but also of civilisation as a whole.  Matter, until then considered unchanging and constant, proved to be changeable and transient.  It is not just humans that are born and grow old; the universe is also subject to the passage of time.  The decay process, expressed in terms of the radioactive half-life, constitutes a universal clock; it has made it possible to measure the age of the solar system and of life on Earth.

The discovery of radioactivity not only revealed the atom as a source of inexhaustible energy, but completely changed the traditional conception of the world and of matter and time.  This fundamental discovery paved the way for the development of a large number of scientific disciplines throughout our age.  Medicine, chemistry and physics were the first to benefit.  These were quickly followed by geophysics, astrophysics and other fields of science and industry.  Radioactive tracers were fundamental in the development of molecular biology and the biological revolution of the mid-20th century, through which radiobiology explained the kinetics of cells and tissues.

The discovery of radioactivity led to major advances in radiotherapy - through the use of radium, then artificial radioisotopes such as cobalt and iridium - such as in imaging and functional radio-diagnostic techniques, which also require radioactive isotopes.