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.

6 Strange Maritime Mysteries

Neville Mountford-Hoare/iStock via Getty Images
Neville Mountford-Hoare/iStock via Getty Images

The oceans cover over 70 percent of our planet, so it's little wonder that their seemingly impenetrable depths have provided a series of fascinating mysteries, from missing ships to eerie monsters. Below are six mysteries of the deep—some of which scientists think they've at least partly explained, while others remain truly puzzling.

  1. The Mary Celeste

On December 5, 1872, the crew of the British ship the Dei Gratia spotted a vessel bobbing about 400 miles off the coast of the Azores. They approached the Mary Celeste to offer help, but after boarding the ship were shocked to find it completely unmanned. The crew had disappeared without a trace, their belongings still stowed in their quarters, six months' worth of food and drink untouched, and the valuable cargo of industrial alcohol still mostly in place. The only clues were three and a half feet of water in the hold, a missing lifeboat, and a dismantled pump. It was the beginning of an enduring mystery concerning what happened to the crew, and why they abandoned a seemingly sea-worthy vessel.

Numerous theories have been suggested, including by crime writer Arthur Conan Doyle, who penned a short story in 1884 suggesting the crew had fallen victim to an ex-slave intent on revenge. A more recent theory has pointed the finger at rough seas and the broken pump, arguing they forced the captain to issue an order to abandon ship. Since the missing crew have never been traced, it seems unlikely that there will ever be a satisfying answer to the enigma.

  1. The Yonaguni Monument

An underwater area known as the Twin Megaliths at the Yonaguni Monument
An area known as the Twin Megaliths at the Yonaguni Monument
Vincent Lou, Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

In 1986, a diver looking for a good spot to watch hammerhead sharks off the coast of the Ryukyu Islands in Japan came across an extraordinary underwater landscape. The area reportedly looked like an ancient submerged village, with steps, holes, and triangles seemingly carved into the rocks. Ever since it was first discovered, controversy has surrounded the site that's become known as the Yonaguni Monument, with some researchers—such as marine geologist Masaaki Kimura—arguing it is a clearly manmade environment, perhaps a city thousands of years old and sunk in one of the earthquakes that plagues the region. Others believe it's a natural geological phenomenon reflecting the stratigraphy (layers) of sandstone in an area with tectonic activity. The area is open to scuba divers, so the really curious can strap on air tanks and decide for themselves.

  1. The Bermuda Triangle

The Bermuda Triangle has probably spawned more wild theories, column inches, and online discussion than any other ocean mystery—more than 50 ships and 20 aircraft are said to have vanished there. Although the triangle has never officially been defined, by some accounts it covers at least 500,000 square miles and lies between Bermuda, Florida, and Puerto Rico.

The mystery first caught the public imagination in December 1945 when Flight 19, consisting of five U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo bombers and their 14 crewmembers, were lost without a trace during a routine training operation in the area. Interest was further piqued when it was later reported that one of the search-and-rescue planes dispatched to find the missing team had also disappeared. Articles and books such as Charles Berlitz’s The Bermuda Triangle, first published in 1974 and having since sold over 20 million copies in 30 languages, have served to keep the mystery alive, providing potential theories both natural and supernatural. Scientists—and world-renowned insurers Lloyd’s of London—have attempted to debunk the myth of the Bermuda Triangle, offering evidence that the rate of disappearance in the vast and busy triangle is no higher than other comparable shipping lanes, but such is the power of a good story that this is one story that seems likely to continue to fascinate.

  1. The Kraken

A model of a giant squid on display at the Natural History Museum in London in 1907
A model of a giant squid on display at the Natural History Museum in London in 1907
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

For hundreds of years, sailors told tales of an enormous sea creature with huge tentacles known as the Kraken. Stories around the mythical kraken first started appearing in Scandinavia in the 12th century, and in 1555 Swedish cartographer Olaus Magnus provided an account of a sea creature with “sharp and long Horns round about, like a Tree root up by the Roots: They are ten or twelve cubits long, very black, and with huge eyes.” The stories persisted, often mentioning a creature so large it resembled an island. In his 1755 book The Natural History of Norway, Danish historian Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan described the kraken as “incontestably the largest Sea monster in the world."

Scientists have proposed that these stories might derive from sightings of giant squid (Architeuthis dux), although evidence for an even larger, yet extremely elusive, colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) has also come to light. The colossal squid is found in the deepest part of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, and is thought to be up to 46 feet long and 1100 pounds. The problem is that the animal is so rare very few specimens have been found intact, and no live specimen has ever been observed, which means that estimating its exact size is difficult. Researchers have also noticed that sperm whales have been observed with large scars, and have suggested that these could be the result of violent encounters with the colossal squid, which is known to have sharp rotating hooks on the ends of their tentacles.

  1. The Treasure of the Merchant Royal

The remains of the Merchant Royal are known as one of the richest shipwrecks ever. The ship set sail from the New World in 1641 laden with 100,000 pounds of gold, 400 Mexican silver bars, and thousands of precious gems—in total, a haul thought to be worth $1.3 billion today. The ship got caught in a storm and was thought to have gone down somewhere off the coast of Cornwall, England. The lost wreck became known as the “el Dorado of the seas” due to the enormous value of its cargo, and over the years numerous treasure hunters have searched fruitlessly for its final resting place, which remains undiscovered. In 2019 fishermen snagged what is thought to be the anchor from the Merchant Royal, but to date the dangerous conditions and extreme depths at which the wreck is thought to lie have meant it has remained unclaimed.

  1. Attack of the Sea Foam

In December 2011, residents of Cleveleys, England, awoke to what appeared to be a soft blanket of snow. But as locals ventured out into the streets it soon became clear that this was no snowstorm, but instead something far more puzzling. Trees, cars, roads, and houses were all wrapped in a thick, white layer of foam. The Environment Agency were quickly deployed to take samples of the sea foam, since residents were understandably concerned as to the origin of the strange, gloopy substance, fearing it might be caused by pollutants.

The dramatic images of the foam-soaked town soon had journalists flocking to the region to investigate the phenomena, but as quickly as it appeared the foam disappeared, leaving behind only a salty residue. Scientists analyzing the foam confirmed it was not caused by detergents, and instead suspected that it was caused by a rare combination of decomposing algae out at sea and strong winds, which whipped up the viscous foam and blew it into land. The phenomena has apparently occurred at other times before and since, and researchers are now working to try and understand the exceptional conditions that cause it to form so that residents can be warned when another thick blanket is set to descend.

Bonus: The Bloop—Mystery Solved

Over the years, the oceans have produced a number of eerie and often unexplained sounds. In 1997, researchers from NOAA listening for underwater volcanic activity using hydrophones (underwater microphones) noticed an extremely loud, powerful series of noises in the Pacific Ocean. The unusual din excited researchers, who soon named it “The Bloop” in reference to its unique sound.

Theories abounded as to the origin of the bloop—secret military facility, reverberations from a ship’s engine, or an enormous sea creature. The most fanciful suggestion stem from H. P. Lovecraft fans who noticed that the noise came from an area off South America where the sci-fi writer’s fictional sunken city of R’lyeh was supposed to be. They proposed that the bloop might have originated from Lovecraft’s “dead but dreaming” sea creature, Cthulhu. In 2005, however, scientists found that the mysterious sound was in fact the noise made by an icequake—or an iceberg shearing off from a glacier.

10 Clever Stranger Things Season 3 Easter Eggs You Might Have Missed

Dacre Montgomery as Billy Hargrove in Stranger Things.
Dacre Montgomery as Billy Hargrove in Stranger Things.
Netflix

Warning: This story includes spoilers for all aired episodes of Stranger Things.

After waiting nearly two years for the latest season of Stranger Things, most fans couldn’t help but binge all eight episodes in a row. But now that we know how it all went down, with Billy Hargrove being taken over by the Mind Flayer and Jim Hopper’s tragic (maybe) death, it's time for us to reprocess the season ... and rewatch it all over again.

While giving the season a second watch, keep an eye out for all the clever Easter eggs sprinkled into each episode, including several references to classic 1980s movies, earlier Stranger Things episodes, and unexpected connections we had never imagined were possible.

1. Peter Gabriel could be hinting at a major plot twist.

Arguably the most heartbreaking scene in Stranger Things history came in the final episode of season 3, “The Battle of Starcourt,” when Eleven reads the scrapped letter Hopper wrote for her and Mike. Viewers at home cried along with Millie Bobby Brown's character as she prepared for life without her “dad,” but one element in the scene might be a hint that Hopper isn’t really dead.

The song that starts playing just as Eleven finishes up reading the letter is Peter Gabriel’s cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” which is the same rendition of the song that played in the season 1 episode “Holly, Jolly,” when it was believed that Will had been killed. Of course, he turned out to be very much alive, meaning the same could (hopefully) happen for Hopper.

2. Jim Hopper is channeling Martin Brody.

Stranger Things has never shied away from paying homage to classic movies. And Redditor LucasLeArtist noticed that one of Hopper's season 3 lines was a direct quote from Jaws. When Hopper is about to leave Enzo’s after Joyce stands him up, he’s told he can’t take the alcohol with him, to which he drunkenly responds, “I can do anything I want, I’m chief of police.” This mimics a scene in Jaws where Chief Brody said the same line before taking a swig of his drink.

3. Murray Bauman’s phone number is real.

Brett Gelman, Natalia Dyer, and Charlie Heaton in Stranger Things
Netflix

One of the more eccentric characters in Stranger Things, Murray Bauman, turned out to be extremely helpful this season, as he served as translator for Hopper and the Russian scientist Alexei. In one scene, Murray’s phone number is shown—and it turns out that it's a working phone number ... which does indeed belong to Murray. As CNET reported, when you dial 618-625-8313, you get a lengthy, and hilarious, answering machine message from the character.

4. Billy Hargrove’s nod to Stand By Me.

While Billy Hargrove surprisingly turned into a character you felt sorry for by the end of season 3, his scenes in the first episode proved he was still just as much of a bully as he was in season 2. One example of this is when he’s lifeguarding and yells at a kid for running by the pool. Billy calls him a “lard-ass,” which doesn’t just remind you of how mean of a person he is, but is also a borrowed line from Rob Reiner's classic 1986 film Stand By Me. As IndieWire pointed out, that particular insult was famously used in the movie during the scene in which Gordie tells his friends a memorable story about a pie-eating contest.

5. Dustin Henderson is crushing on Phoebe Cates.

When Dustin returns to Hawkins from camp, he shocks everyone with the reveal that he now has a girlfriend. Of course, the first reaction from his friends (Steve included) is that she isn’t real. Dustin keeps the story going, however, telling everyone that her name is Suzy and that she's better looking than Phoebe Cates—as in the actress best known for her role in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. In the season’s final episode, we learn that Suzy is indeed real. And when Robin is trying to get Steve a job at the video store, he falls into a cardboard cutout of Cates as Linda Barrett (her Fast Times character) before stopping to admire it.

6. Dustin and Robin recreated a scene from 1992's Sneakers.

A Twitter user pointed out an unexpected callback to the 1992 River Phoenix film Sneakers, as Dustin and Robin recreate one of its scenes when getting the “complete blueprints” of the Starcourt Mall. It's almost word-for-word, with the only difference being that in Sneakers, they’re looking at the Playtronics Corporate Headquarters.

7. Eleven visits the house from A Nightmare on Elm Street.

During Eleven’s scariest venture into the Void this season, she tries to find the missing lifeguard Heather. As she approaches Heather's home, the red door is reminiscent of the house that belonged to Nancy Thompson’s family in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. A Twitter user claimed the number on both doors was the same, but Stranger Things changed it by one number, as Heather lives at 1438. We’re not sure if they had to change it because of legal matters or if was just a coincidence—but in a show full of horror movie references, the similarity would seem a little too coincidental.

8. Steve Harrington can't keep his Michael J. Fox projects straight.

When Dustin, Erica, Steve, and Robin manage to escape the Russians in the seventh episode, “The Bite,” they end up in the movie theater at the mall, which is showing Back to the Future (1985). Steve and Robin soon leave, and while very high—and trying to analyze what they just watched—Robin hilariously says she’s pretty sure “that mom was trying to bang her son,” referring to Marty McFly and his mom, Lorraine. A confused Steve replies, “Wait, wait, the hot chick was Alex P. Keaton’s mom?” Alex P. Keaton, of course, was the name of Michael J. Fox’s character in the hit NBC series Family Ties, not Back to the Future.

9. "Weird" Al Yankovic's Reality Bites link.

In episode 2, “The Mall Rats,” Winona Ryder's Joyce ends up ditching Hopper to go find the kids’ science teacher Mr. Clarke, only to find him jamming out to "Weird" Al Yankovic’s parody song “My Bologna.” A Twitter user pointed out that this could be a nod to 1994’s Reality Bites, which features a memorable scene of Ryder dancing to the original song, “My Sharona.” Ethan Hawke is also in the scene, who is the real-life dad of Maya Hawke, who plays Robin in Stranger Things.

10. The post-credits scene that hints at Hopper's survival.

Perhaps the most important detail in the entire season comes during the post-credits scene, which includes another major hint that Hopper is still alive. Viewers are taken to the Russian base, where prisoners are being fed to the Demogorgon. One soldier then says, “No, not the American,” before moving on to the next person held captive. Fans are convinced the American would have to be Hopper, although there are plenty of theories floating around about other Americans that character could be. Now we’ll just have to wait until season 4, which has not been announced yet, to know who it is for sure.

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