The turning point in the battle between theoretical physicists and empirical geologists and biologists occurred in 1896. In the course of an experiment designed to study x-rays discovered the previous year by Wilhelm Röntgen, Henri Becquerel stored some uranium-covered plates in a desk drawer next to photographic plates wrapped in dark paper. Because it was cloudy in Paris for a couple of days, Becquerel was not able to “energize” his photographic plates by exposing them to sunlight as he had intended. On developing the photographic plates, he found to his surprise strong images of his uranium crystals. He had discovered natural radioactivity, due to nuclear transformations of uranium.
The significance of Becquerel’s discovery became apparent in 1903, when Pierre Curie and his young assistant, Albert Laborde, announced that radium salts constantly release heat. The most extraordinary aspect of this new discovery was that radium radiated heat without cooling down to the temperature of its surroundings. The radiation from radium revealed a previously unknown source of energy. William Wilson and George Darwin almost immediately proposed that radioactivity might be the source of the sun’s radiated energy.
The young prince of experimental physics, Ernest Rutherford, then a professor of physics at McGill University in Montreal, discovered the enormous energy released by alpha particle radiation from radioactive substances. In 1904, he announced:
The discovery of the radio-active elements, which in their disintegration liberate enormous amounts of energy, thus increases the possible limit of the duration of life on this planet, and allows the time claimed by the geologist and biologist for the process of evolution.
The discovery of radioactivity opened up the possibility that nuclear energy might be the origin of solar radiation. This development freed theorists from relying in their calculations on gravitational energy. However, subsequent astronomical observations showed that the sun does not contain a lot of radioactive materials, but instead is mostly hydrogen in gaseous form. Moreover, the rate at which radioactivity delivers energy does not depend on the stellar temperature, while observations of stars suggested that the amount of energy radiated by a star does depend sensitively upon the star’s interior temperature. Something other than radioactivity is required to release nuclear energy within a star.
In the next sections, we shall trace the steps that led to what we now believe is the correct understanding of how stars shine.
The Direction Established