Happy Accidents #038 - Radioactivity

A scientific experiment unearths a groundbreaking revelation

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Discover how a twist of fate turned a scientific experiment into a groundbreaking revelation.

In the late 19th century, French physicist Henri Becquerel accidentally stumbled upon the phenomenon of radioactivity, forever changing the course of scientific history.

Let's dig in, shall we?


This is the part of every Happy Accident story where we see every successful outcome starts with the person putting themselves in a favorable position. They work hard, they try new things, they meet new people. They're not just sitting around 'hoping' to be successful some day.

Born December 15 of 1852 into a family of esteemed scientists, Henri Becquerel had a rich legacy to uphold.

His grandfather, Antoine César Becquerel, as well as his father, Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel, were both renowned physicists.

Henri himself, developed a fascination for fluorescence—a substance's ability to emit light when energized—which led him to delve into experiments with uranium salts.

His curiosity and persistence for scientific testing were setting the stage for a remarkable (and accidental) discovery.

Becquerel was seeking to uncover whether exposure to sunlight could intensify their fluorescence, a common inquiry in the late 1800s.


This is the part of every success story where there's a chance encounter, a serendipitous moment, an unintentional discovery (or Happy Accident) that paves the way for the next steps. In some cases, a Happy Accident can even be disguised as something bad in the moment.

On a cloudy Parisian day in February of 1896, Becquerel embarked on an experiment that would take an unexpected turn.

He placed uranium salts on a wrapped photographic plate, planning to expose them to sunlight.

Unfortunately, the experiment was delayed due to some prolonged cloudy weather.

When the skies finally cleared, Becquerel developed the photographic plate, anticipating increased fluorescence.

To his astonishment, he found the plate was fogged, even in areas shielded from light. How could this be?

This unexpected result signaled the presence of an invisible, penetrating force emitted by the uranium salts.

Becquerel had inadvertently discovered the phenomenon of radioactivity.

(not actual footage of Henri Becquerel 😉)


Just like Happy Accidents don't just fall into your lap (you need to set the stage first), they also don't turn into anything if you don't recognize them and take action. This is the part of every success story where we see people capitalizing on their Happy Accident.

Becquerel's accidental discovery marked a profound moment in scientific history.

He knew he’d discovered something incredible, but also recognized the need to delve deeper into this mysterious phenomenon, setting the stage for groundbreaking research.

He was capitalizing on this Happy Accident as he dove even deeper into his discovery.

Becquerel's tireless work laid the foundation for the eventual study of nuclear physics and had far-reaching implications for both science and medicine.

This serendipitous revelation paved the way for a new era of scientific exploration and contributed to the development of radiation therapy for cancer treatment.

(No, still not actual footage of Henri Becquerel)


In a twist of fate, French physicist Henri Becquerel's experiment on uranium salts, initially intended to study fluorescence, was disrupted by cloudy weather.

When he eventually developed the photographic plate he had exposed to sunlight, he was astonished to find fogging in shielded areas, unveiling the accidental discovery of radioactivity and revolutionizing the course of scientific history.

Credit: Special thanks to Marcus Maier who sent me the idea for this story on Twitter.

Some fun facts:

  • Becquerel's work on radioactivity led to him sharing the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 with Pierre and Marie Curie, who furthered the research on this groundbreaking discovery.

  • Radioactivity fundamentally altered our understanding of the atom and energy, revolutionizing nuclear physics.

  • Today, radioactivity finds essential applications in various fields, including medical diagnostics, energy production, and space exploration.

The lessons here:

  1. Embrace Unexpected Outcomes: Becquerel's readiness to explore unexpected results allowed him to uncover a phenomenon that reshaped science.

  2. Persistence Pays Off: Despite initial setbacks, Becquerel's commitment to understanding the unknown led to groundbreaking discoveries.

  3. Collaborate and Share Knowledge: Sharing the Nobel Prize with the Curies underscores the power of collaboration in advancing science.

YOUR Happy Accidents

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Hey, Dennis Geelen here. Author of the Happy Accidents newsletter.

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