CLOSE
Getty Images
Getty Images

9 Transparently Amazing Facts About X-Rays

Getty Images
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.

Wilhelm Roentgen

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.

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.

All images courtesy of Getty 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Live Smarter
Flurry Road: 5 Tips for Safe Driving on Winter Roads
iStock
iStock

For drivers in the Upper Midwest, traveling during the winter can range from slightly unsettling to deadly. Between 2011 and 2015, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Auto Insurance Center, an average of 800 fatalities occurred annually as a result of weather-related accidents. Icy roads, poor visibility, and other factors can make cold-weather commuting a dicey proposition.

While we can’t control the weather (yet), we can increase our odds of navigating slush-filled roadways successfully. Mental Floss spoke with American Automobile Association (AAA) driving education expert William Van Tassel, Ph.D., for some key tips on how to get your winter driving in gear.

1. GATHER SUPPLIES.

Before you even start your car up for a trip through inclement weather, Van Tassel recommends you pack a worst-case scenario trunk full of supplies. “In case of emergency, you want things on board like water, a blanket, a flashlight, gloves, and kitty litter,” he says. (That last one is for traction in case you get stuck in a snowbank.) You should also have road flares, a shovel, an ice scraper, and a fully-charged cell phone to call for assistance if needed.

2. SLOW DOWN.

Posted speed limit signs assume you’re driving on clear and clean roadways. If snow or ice has accumulated, you need to adjust your speed accordingly. “In slick conditions, tires lose a lot of traction,” Van Tassel says. “You should be cutting your speed down by half or more.” Unfortunately, a lot of people learn this the hard way. “After a snowstorm, we’ll see more crashes on day one than days two or three.”

Van Tassel also cautions to avoid becoming overconfident on snow tires. While they provide better traction in bad weather, it’s not license to speed up.

3. MAINTAIN A SAFE DISTANCE FROM OTHER CARS.

You should be doing this regardless, but bad weather makes it even more crucial. Keep your vehicle at a safe distance from cars behind, in front, and off to the sides, as well as away from pedestrians or cyclists. If you need to brake suddenly, you need time—and space—to avoid a collision. “You really want more space in front,” Van Tassel says. Try to stay between seven and 10 seconds behind the vehicle ahead. That means seeing a landmark and then counting down until you pass the same marker. If you’re only a few seconds behind, you’re too close.

4. DON’T STEER INTO SKIDS.

“That was an old rule of thumb,” Van Tassel says. “The problem is, by the time I remember to steer into a skid, I’m already in a ditch.” If you feel your vehicle sliding, it’s better to steer in the direction you want to go. “You’ll drive where you look, so don’t look at a telephone pole.”

To help maintain control of the car, you want to focus on doing one thing at a time. “If you’re going through a turn, brake, finish braking, then turn. Don’t brake and turn at the same time.”

5. KEEP YOUR HEADLIGHTS ON.

Yep, even in broad daylight. Bad weather limits visibility, and headlights allow both you and your fellow drivers to orient a vehicle. “You’re twice as visible to other drivers that way,” Van Tassel says. “When people can see you, they can avoid you.”

Van Tassel also recommends that drivers avoid relying on fancy car technology to keep them safe. While blind spot monitoring and lane changing sensors are useful, they’re not there so you can zone out. “The tech is there to back you up if you need it. Drive the car, but don’t rely on those things,” he says.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Lists
25 Polite Compliments You Can Pay a Coworker
iStock
iStock

January 24 is National Compliment Day, and a great way to celebrate is by making a concerted effort to praise the people you work with. Be sure to consider when an appropriate time and place for a compliment would be (for instance, shy people would rather be commended on their stellar presentation in private rather than in front of a crowd), but know that whether a coworker is a longtime friend or more of an acquaintance, lauding their work performance and letting them know you appreciate their skills could really make their day.

1. "YOU HAVE A GREAT SENSE OF HUMOR."

Women laughing in office.
iStock

Every office has one person who knows how to ease tensions at work by cracking a quick joke or sharing a funny link. If this person's sense of humor makes your job a little more enjoyable, make sure to let them know.

2. "NICE JOB ON THAT PRESENTATION."

Women giving presentation at work.
iStock

Public speaking is intimidating, especially to someone who's new to their job and not used to giving presentations. Notice your coworker is nervous before a big meeting? Seek them out afterwards. Letting them know you enjoyed and learned from what they said will hopefully make them feel more confident next time.

3. "YOU ALWAYS KNOW WHEN TO LEND A HAND."

Men working at table.
iStock

You probably know someone who's always willing to help out with a project when you need it most, and odds are they rarely receive the recognition they deserve. Next time a coworker offers some relief when you're feeling overwhelmed, don't let it go unnoticed. Set aside time to tell them you see the great work they're doing and you appreciate it.

4. "YOU'RE A SAVVY PROBLEM-SOLVER."

Working with post-it notes.
iStock

Being able to see problems differently is a valuable skill in the workplace. It can open up a team to new ideas and save precious time and resources. Sometimes you may be the person to spot the way out of a problem, and other times it's a coworker who points out the solution that was right in front of your face. If you're grateful for their point of view, they deserve to hear it.

5. "YOU'RE A GREAT COMMUNICATOR."

Doctor talking to colleagues.
iStock

Without communication, collaborating with the people in your workplace would be impossible. A great communicator knows how to understand other people's perspectives, explain their own, and make sure they're never keeping anyone in the dark. They're also not above receiving a compliment every now and then.

6. "I LOVE YOUR ENTHUSIASM."

Man talking at table with other people.
iStock

For some people, getting up and going to work each day is easy: They're personally invested in the company they work for and enjoy helping it succeed. Maybe you're not there yet, but you might see this level of passion and enthusiasm in at least one person you work with. Don't let that inspiring attitude go unrecognized.

7. "I APPRECIATE YOUR TRUST."

Two men in suits shake hands.
iStock

Effective management is just as much about offering guidance and support as knowing when to back off. Sometimes leaving employees room to breathe is the best thing managers can do to encourage growth and creativity. It's also a thankless move that often goes unrewarded. Expressing your appreciation to your manager can make a big difference in their day.

8. "WHAT A FUN PARTY (LUNCH/HAPPY HOUR/ETC.)."

Celebrating a birthday at the office.
iStock

People take certain work events for granted without stopping to consider the employees who make them possible. Birthday cakes don't magically appear and after-work happy hours don't plan themselves. Behind every fun break you get from your day-to-day duties, there's a coworker who took the initiative to make it happen, and they would like to hear that you enjoyed the fruits of their labor.

9. "YOU'VE GOT A KILLER WORK ETHIC."

Woman at a computer in an office.
iStock

We all wish we could be the employee who blows through projects without breaking a sweat. If you're not that person, the least you can do is pay the tireless person in your workplace a compliment—especially after a big project that had them tackling most of the work.

10. "YOUR POSITIVE ATTITUDE IS INFECTIOUS."

High-fiving at work.
iStock

Just like one pessimistic employee can bring down the whole office, a positive person can have the opposite effect. It's hard to feel grumpy about starting a new week when the colleague sitting next to you does everything with a smile on their face.

11. "YOU ASK GREAT QUESTIONS."

Woman raising her hand at work.
iStock

Asking about something you're not familiar with at work can be intimidating, whether it's about a new policy or procedure or perhaps about the ins and outs of a department you don't usually work with. But asking for help or clarification is also the only way to learn and grow. Complimenting a coworker who asks a lot of questions lets them know that not only is that OK, it's valued.

12. "I LOVE YOUR IDEAS."

Hand writing in a notebook.
iStock

When someone introduces a great idea at work, people often respond in one of two ways: They get upset that they didn't think of it themselves, or they admire the person for their brilliance. If you want to strengthen work relationships and feel better in the long run, we suggest expressing the latter.

13. "YOU'RE GREAT AT TAKING INITIATIVE."

People talking in an office.
iStock

Employees who take initiative help businesses run smoothly. Managers don't have to worry about babysitting them, and their coworkers never end up picking up their slack. Next time you go into work, find the person you know who always takes initiative and compliment them for their efforts.

14. "YOU'RE VERY CREATIVE."

Meeting at work.
iStock

Even if your job isn't particularly inspiring, you may have coworkers who find everyday opportunities to be creative. Their creativity might shine through in the form of a sharply designed flyer, a well-written memo, or an innovative solution to the problem at hand. Sometimes people who don't work in a traditionally artistic field are rarely complimented for their creativity—you can change that.

15. "I APPRECIATE YOU TAKING RESPONSIBILITY."

Two people cleaning up cups in a cafe.
iStock

Do you know someone at work who's taken responsibility—whether for a botched performance, a failed pitch, or a missed deadline—even when they could have gotten away with keeping quiet? That's not easy to do. Recognize their actions, and they may be inclined to do it more often.

16. "YOU'RE SO FLEXIBLE."

Office worker with bike on laptop.
iStock

Sure, you can promise your coworker this is the absolute last time you'll ask them to push a meeting back a couple of days or move up a deadline by a week. Or, you can compliment them on being so flexible and thank them for working around the changes so efficiently.

17. "I LOVE YOUR CONFIDENCE."

Woman walking down the street with coffee.
iStock

Confidence in the workplace is hard to ignore. It radiates from everything a person does, and when you're working on a project with such a person, it can make you feel more confident as well. Let this employee know that you appreciate their poise and self-assuredness.

18. "I APPRECIATE HOW TECH-SAVVY YOU ARE."

Woman pointing to a computer where a man is working.
iStock

Who do you turn to when your screen freezes, or when the long email you spent the last 15 minutes crafting suddenly disappears? Likely, instead of running to I.T. every time, you ask a nearby coworker who always seems to have the answers. Even if they don't share their know-how for the praise, they deserve a compliment and gratitude.

19. "YOU'RE A GREAT BAKER."

Workplace with cookies on a plate.
iStock

People who bake for their coworkers are a special breed. By sharing what they made with the office, it means that they not only took the time to cook with you in mind, but also that they're sharing a bit of their personal likes or hobbies with you. What better time to compliment the chef than when they bring platter of fresh cookies to the morning meeting?

20. "I ADMIRE YOUR LEADERSHIP."

Woman in hard hat with papers.
iStock

A good leader is many things, including fair, compassionate, and hard-working. But whatever qualities your manager exhibits that make you appreciate working for him or her, find a chance to let them know you commend their leadership, and that you're a better employee because of it.

21. "YOU HAVE A MIND FOR DETAIL."

People working at a table.
iStock

Details make a big difference at work, whether you're writing a big report or a thank you email. Sometimes the details that make the biggest impact on a project are hard to notice on their own. See if you can spot the smart, subtle details the next time you're evaluating your coworker's work, and tell them if you're impressed by what you find.

22. "YOU'RE ON MY WAVELENGTH."

Women talking at work.
iStock

It may not always top lists of most valuable skills to take into the workplace, but empathy can do wonders for office culture. When team members practice empathy and really make an effort to understand the people they work with, they make everyone's job easier. This is one skill that definitely deserves recognition.

23. "THANKS FOR BEING SO RELIABLE."

Two men shaking hands.
iStock

No matter what you do for work, it's impossible to do your job entirely on your own. Reliable coworkers you can depend on for support, guidance, and inspiration are a priceless resource. If they make the effort to show up and work hard consistently, the least you can do is show them you appreciate it.

24. "YOU'RE A REAL TEAM PLAYER."

Team working together in the office.
iStock

In order to succeed as a team, your colleagues need to have the right attitude. Maybe there's one person on your team who sets a good example for the rest of you: They know exactly when to step back and listen to other people's ideas and when to come forward with their own. Sometimes being a good team player means swallowing your pride to do what's best for the group, and that's behavior worth celebrating.

25. "YOU GIVE GREAT ADVICE."

Women talking to her colleagues at work.
iStock

At some point in your career, you've likely relied on a more experienced coworker for advice. Without mentors, many of the world's most successful people wouldn't be where they are today. Never be ashamed to ask for guidance, and once you receive it, make sure to show your gratitude.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER