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.

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

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5 Organizations That Empower Black Communities—and How You Can Help

Attorney Nina Shaw speaks at a 2019 awards ceremony for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Attorney Nina Shaw speaks at a 2019 awards ceremony for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for NAACP LDF

As people gather across the nation to protest racial injustice and police brutality following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer, you might be wondering what you can do to help promote equality and empower Black communities. One great way is to donate to organizations committed to furthering those goals—from legal defense funds to healthcare initiatives, below are five organizations to consider contributing to (and you can check out more from this list, compiled by Charity Navigator).

1. Black Lives Matter

Founded in 2013 as a response to the acquittal of the man who killed Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter is a chapter-based organization that works to end state violence against members of Black communities and bring about social, economic, and political equality.

"We are guided by the fact that all Black lives matter, regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, immigration status, or location," the organization explains on its website.

Click here to donate.

2. NAACP Legal Defense Fund

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund (LDF), established by Thurgood Marshall in 1940, is a law firm that focuses on upholding civil rights and achieving equality through structural change and racial justice.

"Through litigation, advocacy, and public education, LDF seeks structural changes to expand democracy, eliminate disparities, and achieve racial justice in a society that fulfills the promise of equality for all Americans," the LDF mission statement reads.

Click here to donate.

3. Black Women’s Health Imperative

While data on COVID-19 cases is still evolving, the CDC has acknowledged that the current numbers suggest "a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups." The CDC has also stated that Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native women are "two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women." In short, Black women face unique risks when it comes to receiving quality healthcare and life-saving treatment, which makes the Black Women's Health Imperative especially important.

The mission of the Black Women's Health Imperative is "to lead the effort to solve the most pressing health issues that affect Black women and girls in the U.S." In addition to developing programs and supporting policies that help mitigate those issues, they also educate women on preventative measures, healthcare treatment, and more.

Click here to donate.

4. National Association of Black Journalists

The National Association of Black Journalists—the largest coalition of people of color in the journalism industry—seeks equal representation in the media by helping Black journalists progress to managerial positions, providing professional development training, awarding scholarships to students interested in journalism, and more. They also try to effect change in the industry at large by "sensitizing all media to the importance of fairness in the workplace for Black journalists."

Click here to donate.

5. Center for Black Equity

The Center for Black Equity supports Black LGBTQ+ individual by building a network of community-based organizations that, according to their mission statement, promote “health and wellness opportunities, economic empowerment, and equal rights while promoting individual and collective work, responsibility, and self-determination."

Click here to donate.