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Mr X (-rays): Wilhelm Conrad Röngten

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di Barbara Balcon

You might have heard of him during your first days at Bocconi when wandering around in search of Aula Magna, or maybe somewhere in the periodic table, but do you really know who he was?

Born on April 27, 1845 in Lennep (Germany), Wilhelm Conrad Röngten in 1895 produced and detected X-rays, also known as Röngten rays. For this achievement, he received the first Nobel Prize for Physics (1901).

He attended high school in Utrecht (Nederlands) and was expelled due to his refusal to reveal the author of the caricature of a teacher. Without a diploma, he could only attend the University of Utrecht as a visitor. He later found out that he was only required to pass a test to enter the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich. He was admitted and studied mechanical engineering for three years, then he graduated with a PhD in physics.

He pursued a brilliant academic career and became rector of the University of Strassburg. The first medical X-ray of history, which many readers have probably seen at least once, showed an image of his wife’s hand with a ring.

Among the many prizes and awards received we can find the Matteucci, Rumford and Elliott Cresson Medal. Moreover, in 2004 IUPAC named element 111 (Röngtenium) in his honour.

W.C. Röngten’s name is not only associated with his discoveries, but also with his modesty and generosity. He donated the prize money to his university and refused to take out any patent related to his discoveries and to name the rays after him, which happened anyway against his will.

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