1 minute read

Cosmic Ray

Discovery Of Cosmic Rays

The existence of cosmic radiation was first discovered in 1912, in experiments performed by the physicist Victor Hess. His experiments were sparked by a desire to better understand phenomena of electric charge. A common instrument of the day for demonstrating such phenomena was the electroscope. An electroscope contains thin metal leaves or wires that separate from one another when they become charged, due to the fact that like charges repel. Eventually the leaves (or wires) lose their charge and collapse back together. It was known that this loss of charge had to be due to the attraction by the leaves of charged particles (called ions) in the surrounding air. The leaves would attract those ions having a charge opposite to that of the leaves, due to the fact that opposite charges attract; eventually the accumulation of ions in this way would neutralize the charge that had been acquired by the leaves, and they would cease to repel each other. Scientists wanted to know where these ions came from. It was thought that they must be the result of radiation emanating from Earth's crust, since it was known that radiation could produce ions in the air. This led scientists to predict that there would be fewer ions present the further one traveled away from Earth's surface. Hess's experiments, in which he took electroscopes high above Earth's surface in a balloon, showed that this was not the case. At high altitudes, the electroscopes lost their charge even faster than they had on the ground, showing that there were more ions in the air and thus that the radiation responsible for the presence of the ions was stronger at higher altitudes. Hess concluded that there was a radiation coming into our atmosphere from outer space.

As physicists became interested in cosmic radiation, they developed new ways of studying it. The Geiger-Muller counter consists of a wire attached to an electric circuit and suspended in a gaseous chamber. The passage of a cosmic ray through the chamber produces ions in the gas, causing the counter to discharge an electric pulse. Another instrument, the cloud chamber, contains a gas which condenses into vapor droplets around ions when these are produced by the passage of a cosmic ray. In the decades following Hess's discovery, physicists used instruments such as these to learn more about the nature of cosmic radiation.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cosine to Cyano groupCosmic Ray - Discovery Of Cosmic Rays, The Nature And Origin Of Cosmic Rays