forest surrounding the Joachimsthal uranium mine in Bohemia.
Tons of this material were shipped to Paris.
Working in a makeshift laboratory that a visitor once
described as 'a cross between a stable and a potato shed', Marie
and Pierre began the laborious work of separation and analysis.
Processing twenty kilograms of raw material at a time in a bub-
bling cauldron that gave off noxious fumes, it took them four
years to isolate a few grains of radium. For their pains, in 1903,
Marie and Pierre Curie shared a Nobel Prize with Henri
Becquerel 'in recognition of the extraordinary services they have
rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena'.
Radioactivity was here to stay.
The ten years that straddled the turn of the twentieth century
must have been some of the most thrilling times Science has
ever seen. The excitement over radioactivity and X-rays triggered
an explosion of activity in physics labs around the world as new
discoveries piled up one after the other. The greatest research
school in experimental physics at the time was the Cavendish
Laboratory at Cambridge University. It was headed by a brilliant
physicist, James Joseph Thomson, who had first studied there
under Robert Strutt's father, Lord Rayleigh, and whom he had
succeeded as head of the laboratory in 1884. Not only was
Thomson important for his own discoveries, but perhaps more
significant was the fact that he was an exceptional leader. His
ability to encourage and nurture others resulted in the
Cavendish becoming responsible for most of the important
discoveries made at the time, and world famous for the out-
standing quality of its science. Although dating the age of the
Earth was not the first, or even last, priority of many of the
scientists involved, four wild miracles followed each other in
rapid succession, all contributing to making it possible.
When J.J. Thomson detected the electron at the Cavendish in