EPJ H - Cosmic Rays: a (partly) untold story
- Published on 04 April 2011
The work behind the discovery of cosmic rays, a milestone in science, involved many scientists in Europe and the New World fascinated by the puzzling penetrating radiation, and took place during a period characterized by lack of communication and by nationalism caused primarily by World War I. It took eventually from the turn of the century until 1926 before the extraterrestrial nature of the penetrating radiation was generally accepted.
In the work that culminated with high altitude balloon flights, many important contributions have been forgotten and in particular those of Domenico Pacini, who, in June 1911, demonstrated by studying the decrease of radioactivity with an electroscope immersed in water that the radiation today called "cosmic rays" could not come from the crust of the Earth. This was the first time in which the technique of comparison of undersea measurements with measurements at sea level has been used to obtain a result in fundamental physics; this technique will be used in neutrino experiments of the near future.
This article carefully retraces the history of the discovery of cosmic rays and puts the unfolding story in both the political and scientific contexts. With the help of material previously unknown to the history of science, for example the nominations for the Nobel prizes related to cosmic ray research and the relevant internal reports of the Swedish Royal Academy of Science, and letters exchanged between Victor Hess and Pacini, a more complete view of this fascinating discovery is possible.
To read the full paper "Nationalism and internationalism in science: the case of the discovery of cosmic rays" by P. Carlson and A. De Angelis, Eur. Phys. J. H 36, 309-329 (2010) click here