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People and Discoveries

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From the ancient Greeks who first believed that all matter was made up of atoms, to the splitting of the atom in the first half of this century, radiation has long been a source of curiosity for scientists and students alike. This curiosity has led to many scientific discoveries leaving us with a nuclear legacy of both risks and benefits.

Below are a few brief biographies of scientists who have dedicated their lives to the study of radiation and atomic energy. For more information on each scientist, follow the links to Figures in Radiation History, which is maintained by the Office of Radiation, Chemical & Biological Safety at Michigan State University. Exit EPA Disclaimer

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Marie and Pierre Curie, Henri Becquerel

Marie Curie (1867-1934) and Pierre Curie (1859-1906) are perhaps two of the most famous scientists known for their contributions to the study of radioactivity. Pierre was born in Paris and Marie in Poland. In 1895, they were married. They both studied at the Sorbonne, and together made significant contributions to the field of radiation studies. They studied the properties of uranium and thorium and soon discovered polonium. Pierre pursued the study of magnetism acting at high temperatures. Marie Curie continued her studies in chemistry in physics and is the only person ever to receive Nobel Awards in both disciplines. The "curie" is a unit of measure now used in radiation studies.

They combined efforts with scientist, Henri Becquerel and in 1903, they were all awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. The "becquerel" is also a unit of measure in radiation studies.

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Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, Fritz Strassman

TubesOtto Hahn, 1879-1968 was born in Germany and studied chemistry. His research with other scientists, including Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassman, led to the discovery of nuclear fission.

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Wilhelm Roentgen

X-ray of hand wearing ring

Wilhem Conrad Roentgen discovered X-rays in 1895. By February 1896, the use of X-rays had spread rapidly and most major cities had at least one X-ray facility. In 1901, he was awarded the first Nobel Prize for physics.

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Enrico Fermi

X-RayEnrico Fermi (1901-1954) Fermi was born in Italy in 1901. At the age of 21, he earned his doctorate by writing his thesis on X-rays. In 1938, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. In 1939, he came to the United States and became a U.S. citizen. Fermi taught physics and worked at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico. He worked with Hungarian-born, Leo Szilard (1898-1964) and others to produce the first sustained nuclear chain reaction on December 2, 1942, in a laboratory beneath the University of Chicago football stadium.

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