9 Transparently Amazing Facts About X-Rays

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen, a professor of Physics in Worzburg, Bavaria, was the first to find a way to peer inside the body without surgery. On the evening of November 8, he was experimenting with the conduction of electricity through low-pressure gases using an induction coil and a partially-evacuated glass tube when he accidentally discovered a mysterious ray capable of lighting up a fluorescent screen a few meters away. When he passed his hand between the ray and the screen, he glimpsed a shadow of his own bones. Further experimentation showed that the screen could be replaced by a photographic plate—and the x-ray was born. Roentgen would later earn the first Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery.

Since then, x-rays have revolutionized medical diagnosis and made a huge impact on astronomy, chemistry, and other branches of science. They’ve allowed us to peer inside our own DNA, as well as into distant galaxies. In 2009, the x-ray was named the most important modern scientific discovery by nearly 50,000 people in a Science Museum of London poll; even penicillin came in second.

1. THE X MEANS UNKNOWN.

Roentgen named his discovery X-strahlenstrahlen being German for “beam” or “ray,” and “x” being used in mathematics to indicate an unknown quantity.  Even though we now know much more about how x-rays work, their name has retained a sense of their original mystery. The rays have also been called “Roentgen's rays,” and the images they produce are sometimes known as “roentgenograms.”

2. ONE OF THE EARLIEST X-RAYS WAS OF THE DISCOVERER’S WIFE’S HAND.

Like many scientists, Roentgen started out by experimenting on his wife. One of his first x-rays—if not the first—was of his wife Anna Bertha's hand with her wedding ring on her finger (above). She was reportedly unimpressed by the image; by some accounts, she exclaimed “I have seen my death!” after looking at it for the first time. (You can see other very early x-rays courtesy of the British Library here.)

3. THEY WERE ALMOST IMMEDIATELY PUT TO USE.

Within weeks of Roentgen’s announcement, European surgeons were using x-rays to find bullets and other foreign substances in human bodies. One of the earliest diagnoses was by a British doctor who found a needle embedded in a woman's hand. By the following year, an x-ray department had been set up at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, and x-rays were being used clinically in the US to diagnose bone fractures and gunshot wounds.

Not all uses were medically necessary, however—the daughter of one early adopter later reported that “at one of my birthday parties we had fancy rings for the children to wear and showed them their skeletal hands to loud shrieks of excitement: knowing what we do today, of course, he wouldn’t have done it.” 

4. PEOPLE USED TO THINK THEY WERE HARMLESS.

In the early days, people thought x-rays passed through the body as harmlessly as normal light. It wasn’t until Thomas Edison’s assistant Clarence Dally, who had worked extensively with X-rays, died of skin cancer in 1904 that people started taking the health concerns about the new technology seriously. 

Partly as a result of the perceived harmlessness—but mostly because of the novelty factor—there was a late-19th-century and early 20th-century vogue for x-ray machines, which started to appear at carnivals and as a curiosity in theatrical shows. The word “x-ray” was even added as a promotional gimmick to products like headache tablets and stove polish—part of a brief “x-ray mania” that saw the rays frequently mentioned in advertising, songs, and cartoons. 

During the 1930s, '40s, and early '50s, x-ray machines were also a not-infrequent feature of American shoe stores, which used them to ensure a better fit. You can see a demonstration of the concept in this clip from the 1920s silent film, General Personal Hygiene:

5. THEY REVOLUTIONIZED THE TREATMENT OF TUBERCULOSIS.

Until the advent of antibiotics for tuberculosis in the mid-20th century, rest in a sanatorium was generally considered the only cure for TB. Early detection was thought to be key for the cure to work, but the traditional method of diagnosing was to listen to chest sounds, which could sometimes be difficult to diagnose accurately. X-rays finally allowed doctors to see the characteristic shadows and spots on the lungs caused by masses of the M. tuberculosis bacteria, and mass radiography began to be used in armies, factories, and mines, with many lives saved as a result.

6. THEY CAN KILL CANCER.

Early experimenters with x-rays noticed that the rays had a tendency to burn skin, a tendency made worse by the fact that older machines exposed people to much higher doses of radiation than today. But while overexposure to the rays can cause cancer, they can also cure it. Even back in Roentgen's day, doctors were using x-rays to burn off moles. Besides being used for diagnosis, today narrowly focused beams of x-rays are used in some forms of cancer radiotherapy to destroy tumor tissues.

7. THEY ALLOWED US TO FIND THE STRUCTURE OF DNA.


Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Our understanding of the double-helix shape of DNA was provided in part by x-ray crystallography—a technique in which x-rays bounce off the three-dimensional pattern of atoms within a crystal lattice to form a shadow image of its structure. In the early 1950s, a British researcher name Rosalind Franklin took the x-ray photos that first showed DNA’s structure, but died before she could share the Nobel Prize with the men more generally given credit for discovering the shape of the “secret of life”—James Watson and Francis Crick.

8. THEY’VE HELPED US SEE INTO SPACE

More than a dozen telescopes that detect x-rays have been launched into space, which have allowed us to make discoveries far beyond our own solar system. In 1999, NASA deployed their Chandra X-ray Observatory aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, which has since discovered black holes, advanced our understanding of dark matter, and looked at the huge black hole at the center of the Milky Way, among other achievements.

9. THEY’VE CHANGED OUR UNDERSTANDING OF ART AND ARTIFACTS.

X-rays have allowed scientists and art historians to see “underpaintings”—the rough sketches painters once used to guide their work—among other secrets. Seeing these underpaintings can help art historians gain a better understanding of the way artists once worked. X-rays can also show how paintings have been changed and restored over time, sometimes allowing for more authentic restorations.

X-rays have also been to study priceless artifacts—like Egyptian mummies—without damaging them. And they’ve revealed surprises, like the human corpse inside one Chinese statue. They’ve even been used to peer inside opaque amber to view otherwise invisible fossils of ancient animals, insects, and plants.

12 Intriguing Facts About the Intestines

When we talk about the belly, gut, or bowels, what we're really talking about are the intestines—long, hollow, coiled tubes that comprise a major part of the digestive tract, running from the stomach to the anus. The intestines begin with the small intestine, divided into three parts whimsically named the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum, which absorb most of the nutrients from what we eat and drink. Food then moves into the large intestine, or colon, which absorbs water from the digested food and expels it into the rectum. That's when sensitive nerves in your rectum create the sensation of needing to poop.

These organs can be the source of intestinal pain, such as in irritable bowel syndrome, but they can also support microbes that are beneficial to your overall health. Here are some more facts about your intestines.

1. The intestines were named by medieval anatomists.

Medieval anatomists had a pretty good understanding of the physiology of the gut, and are the ones who gave the intestinal sections their names, which are still used today in modern anatomy. When they weren't moralizing about the organs, they got metaphorical about them. In 1535, the Spanish doctor Andrés Laguna noted that because the intestines "carry the chyle and all the excrement through the entire region of the stomach as if through the Ocean Sea," they could be likened to "those tall ships which as soon as they have crossed the ocean come to Rouen with their cargoes on their way to Paris but transfer their cargoes at Rouen into small boats for the last stage of the journey up the Seine."

2. Leonardo da Vinci believed the intestines helped you breathe.

Leonardo mistakenly believed the digestive system aided respiratory function. In 1490, he wrote in his unpublished notebooks, "The compressed intestines with the condensed air which is generated in them, thrust the diaphragm upwards; the diaphragm compresses the lungs and expresses the air." While that isn't anatomically accurate, it is true that the opening of the lungs is helped by the relaxation of stomach muscles, which does draw down the diaphragm.

3. Your intestines could cover two tennis courts ...

Your intestines take up a whole lot of square footage inside you. "The surface area of the intestines, if laid out flat, would cover two tennis courts," Colby Zaph, a professor of immunology in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Melbourne's Monash University, tells Mental Floss. The small intestine alone is about 20 feet long, and the large intestine about 5 feet long.

4. ... and they're pretty athletic.

The process of moving food through your intestines requires a wave-like pattern of muscular action, known as peristalsis, which you can see in action during surgery in this YouTube video.

5. Your intestines can fold like a telescope—but that's not something you want to happen.

Intussusception is the name of a condition where a part of your intestine folds in on itself, usually between the lower part of the small intestine and the beginning of the large intestine. It often presents as severe intestinal pain and requires immediate medical attention. It's very rare, and in children may be related to a viral infection. In adults, it's more commonly a symptom of an abnormal growth or polyp.

6. Intestines are very discriminating.

"The intestines have to discriminate between good things—food, water, vitamins, good bacteria—and bad things, such as infectious organisms like viruses, parasites and bad bacteria," Zaph says. Researchers don't entirely know how the intestines do this. Zaph says that while your intestines are designed to keep dangerous bacteria contained, infectious microbes can sometimes penetrate your immune system through your intestines.

7. The small intestine is covered in "fingers" ...

The lining of the small intestine is blanketed in tiny finger-like protrusions known as villi. These villi are then covered in even tinier protrusions called microvilli, which help capture food particles to absorb nutrients, and move food on to the large intestine.

8. ... And you can't live without it.

Your small intestine "is the sole point of food and water absorption," Zaph says. Without it, "you'd have to be fed through the blood."

9. The intestines house your microbiome. 

The microbiome is made up of all kinds of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoans, "and probably used to include worm parasites too," says Zaph. So in a way, he adds, "we are constantly infected with something, but it [can be] helpful, not harmful."

10. Intestines are sensitive to change.

Zaph says that many factors change the composition of the microbiome, including antibiotics, foods we eat, stress, and infections. But in general, most people's microbiomes return to a stable state after these events. "The microbiome composition is different between people and affected by diseases. But we still don't know whether the different microbiomes cause disease, or are a result in the development of disease," he says.

11. Transferring bacteria from one gut to another can transfer disease—or maybe cure it.

"Studies in mice show that transplanting microbes from obese mice can transfer obesity to thin mice," Zaph says. But transplanting microbes from healthy people into sick people can be a powerful treatment for some intestinal infections, like that of the bacteria Clostridium difficile, he adds. Research is pouring out on how the microbiome affects various diseases, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, and even autism.

12. The microbes in your intestines might influence how you respond to medical treatments.

Some people don't respond to cancer drugs as effectively as others, Zaph says. "One reason is that different microbiomes can metabolize the drugs differently." This has huge ramifications for chemotherapy and new cancer treatments called checkpoint inhibitors. As scientists learn more about how different bacteria metabolize drugs, they could possibly improve how effective existing cancer treatments are.

15 Unique Illnesses You Can Only Come Down With in German

iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages
iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

The German language is so perfectly suited for these syndromes, coming down with them in any other language just won’t do.

1. Kevinismus

At some point in the last couple of decades, parents in Germany started coming down with Kevinismus—a strange propensity to give their kids wholly un-German, American-sounding names like Justin, Mandy, Dennis, Cindy, and Kevin. Kids with these names reportedly tend to be less successful in school and in life, although some researchers have suggested this could be due to a combination of teachers’ prejudices toward the names and the lower social status of parents who choose names like Kevin.

2. Föhnkrankheit

Föhn is the name for a specific wind that cools air as it draws up one side of a mountain, and then warms it as it compresses coming down the other side. These winds are believed to cause headaches and other feelings of illness. Many a 19th century German lady took to her fainting couch with a cold compress, suffering from Föhnkrankheit.

3. Kreislaufzusammenbruch

Kreislaufzusammenbruch, or “circulatory collapse,” sounds deathly serious, but it’s used quite commonly in Germany to mean something like “feeling woozy” or “I don’t think I can come into work today.”

4. Hörsturz

Hörsturz refers to a sudden loss of hearing, which in Germany is apparently frequently caused by stress. Strangely, while every German knows at least five people who have had a bout of Hörsturz, it is practically unheard of anywhere else.

5. Frühjahrsmüdigkeit

Frühjahrsmüdigkeit or “early year tiredness” can be translated as “spring fatigue.” Is it from the change in the weather? Changing sunlight patterns? Hormone imbalance? Allergies? As afflictions go, Frühjahrsmüdigkeit is much less fun than our “spring fever,” which is instead associated with increased vim, vigor, pep, and randiness.

6. Fernweh

Fernweh is the opposite of homesickness. It is the longing for travel, or getting out there beyond the horizon, or what you might call wanderlust.

7. Putzfimmel

Putzen means “to clean” and Fimmel is a mania or obsession. Putzfimmel is an obsession with cleaning. It is not unheard of outside of Germany, but elsewhere it is less culturally embedded and less fun to say.

8. Werthersfieber

An old-fashioned type of miserable lovesickness that was named “Werther’s fever” for the hero of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Poor young Werther suffers for the love of a peasant girl who is already married. Death is his only way out. A generation of sensitive young men brought made Werthersfieber quite fashionable in the late 18th century.

9. Ostalgie

Ostalgie is nostalgia for the old way of life in East Germany (ost means East). If you miss your old Trabant and those weekly visits from the secret police, you may have Ostalgie.

10. Zeitkrankheit

Zeitkrankheit is “time sickness” or “illness of the times.” It’s a general term for whatever the damaging mindset or preoccupations of a certain era are.

11. Weltschmerz

Weltschmerz or “world pain,” is a sadness brought on by a realization that the world cannot be the way you wish it would be. It’s more emotional than pessimism, and more painful than ennui.

12. Ichschmerz

Ichschmerz is like Weltschmerz, but it is dissatisfaction with the self rather than the world. Which is probably what Weltschmerz really boils down to most of the time.

13. Lebensmüdigkeit

Lebensmüdigkeit translates as despair or world-weariness, but it also more literally means “life tiredness.” When someone does something stupidly dangerous, you might sarcastically ask, “What are you doing? Are you lebensmüde?!”

14. Zivilisationskrankheit

Zivilisationskrankheit, or “civilization sickness” is a problem caused by living in the modern world. Stress, obesity, eating disorders, carpal tunnel syndrome, and diseases like type 2 diabetes are all examples.

15. Torschlusspanik

Torschlusspanik or “gate closing panic” is the anxiety-inducing awareness that as time goes on, life’s opportunities just keep getting fewer and fewer and there’s no way to know which ones you should be taking before they close forever. It’s a Zivilisationskrankheit that may result in Weltschmerz, Ichschmerz, or Lebensmüdigkeit.

This list first ran in 2015.

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