The nineteenth century held one last great surprise for chemists. It began in 1896 when Henri Becquerel in Paris carelessly left a packet of uranium salts on a wrapped photographic plate in a drawer. When he took the plate out some time later, he was surprised to discover that the salts had burned an impression in it, just as if the plate had been exposed to light. The salts were emitting rays of some sort.
Considering the importance of what he had found, Becquerel did a very strange thing: he turned the matter over to a graduate student for investigation. Fortunately the student was a recent émigré from Poland named Marie Curie. Working with her new husband, Pierre, Curie found that certain kinds of rocks poured out constantand extraordinary amounts of energy, yet without diminishing in size or changing in any detectable way. Whatshe and her husband couldn't know—what no one could know until Einstein explained things the following decade—was that the rocks were converting mass into energy in an exceedingly efficient way. Marie Curie dubbedthe effect "radioactivity." In the process of their work, the Curies also found two new elements—polonium, which they named after her native country, and radium. In 1903 the Curies and Becquerel were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. (Marie Curie would win a second prize, in chemistry, in 1911, the only personto win in both chemistry and physics.)