X is for X-rays, WWI and Marie Curie

One major obstacle was the need for electrical power to produce the X-rays. Marie Curie solved that problem.

Marie Curie, née Sklodowska, is probably the most famous woman of science ever. She engaged in “groundbreaking work on radioactivity”, and became the first person to win the Nobel Prize in two different fields.

“In July 1898, Marie along with her husband Pierre Curie, announced the discovery of a new chemical polonium, naming it after her native country Poland. The same year, the Curies discovered radium.

“In 1903, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics alongside Pierre and Henri Becquerel. Eight years later, she won her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry.”

It’s less well known that she was a major hero of World War I.

“At the start of the war, X-ray machines were still found only in city hospitals, far from the battlefields where wounded troops were being treated. Curie’s solution was to invent the first ‘radiological car’ – a vehicle containing an X-ray machine and photographic darkroom equipment – which could be driven right up to the battlefield where army surgeons could use X-rays to guide their surgeries.

“One major obstacle was the need for electrical power to produce the X-rays. Curie solved that problem by incorporating a dynamo – a type of electrical generator – into the car’s design. The petroleum-powered car engine could thus provide the required electricity.

Eventually, using her fame, “she had 20, which she outfitted with X-ray equipment. But the cars were useless without trained X-ray operators, so Curie started to train women volunteers. She recruited 20 women for the first training course, which she taught along with her daughter Irene, a future Nobel Prize winner herself.”

“Not content just to send out her [eventually 150] trainees…, Curie herself had her own ‘little Curie’ – as the radiological cars were nicknamed – that she took to the front. This required her to learn to drive, change flat tires and even master some rudimentary auto mechanics, like cleaning carburetors.”

Yet she experienced the Matilda Effect, the marginalizing of women in science, named for Matilda Gage, an early suffragette. The French Academy of Sciences, founded in 1666, excluded women, such as Marie Curie, though her husband got in, Nobel winner Irène Joliot-Curie, and mathematician Sophie Germain, for nearly three centuries. “The first woman admitted as a correspondent member was a student of Curie’s, Marguerite Perey, in 1962.”

Marie Curie is included in the 2018 book She Persisted Around the World: 13 Women Who Changed History by Chelsea Clinton.

For ABC Wednesday

X is for X-Ray Vision

X-ray vision is a bit of a misnomer.


The X-ray was discovered a little over a century ago. Getting an X-ray is something we take as commonplace at the dentist’s office or at a medical lab, but it was the quite amazing, and accidental, discovery. And it has helped produce some pretty nifty art effects such as The X-Ray Vision of Nick Veasey, from which this image was taken.

But that’s not what I really want to talk about.

I’m more interested in the notion of “X-ray vision”. As the Wikipedia entry explains, it’s a bit of a misnomer: “Although called X-ray vision, this power has little to do with the actual effect of X-rays. Instead, it is usually presented as the ability to selectively see through certain objects as though they are invisible, translucent or not present, in order to see objects or surfaces beyond or deep to the affected object or material.” This is NOT the way actual X-rays work: “The visions seen [in X-ray vision] are generally in full color and three-dimensional. How such an effect might be created via x-rays is unexplained (the x-rays from the viewer’s eyes would need to bounce back to his eyes the same way as normal light reflects off objects and into the viewer’s eyes: x-rays simply pass through an object and continue on their way.”

The fascination with X-ray vision, in “science fiction stories or superhero comics” has embedded itself in the minds of the public so thoroughly that a Google search will glean thousands of examples. Mark Evanier points to x-ray glasses and other mail-order mysteries from the stuff you order from comic book ads and the like, which is lots of fun. But it’s not just a ruse from the olden days. On YouTube, you will find Tiny Filter Gives Cellphone Cameras X-Ray Vision. Well, no. There is another technology at work whereby one can see Kim Kardashian’s underwear, but X-ray vision it is not. Ditto this Little Dot cover.

Of course, the best-known character with X-ray vision is the Man of Steel, as noted in comic books, TV show,s and on film. “Superman can see through walls to see the bad guys beyond, or see-through Lois Lane’s dress to determine the colour of her underwear (in Superman: The Movie, Warner Brothers, 1978).” Superman’s cousin, Supergirl is similarly blessed, or cursed, with this ability, evidently.

I suppose I too have fantasized about having that power and ability far beyond that of mortal man. But I would only use the power for good, not anything inappropriate. Or so I tell myself.

What superhero power would YOU want to have?

ABC Wednesday team

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