University Archives


Henri Becquerel, Nobel Prize-Winning French Physicist, Autograph Manuscript Signed Re: the Crystalline Light Absorption & Vibration Debate!

2pp manuscript of scientific notes inscribed overall by Nobel Prize-winning French physicist Antoine-Henri Becquerel (1852-1908), and signed by him as "M. Henri Becquerel" at the top of the second page entitled "Observations relative to the communication of M. Carvallo by M. Henri Becquerel." We propose that this manuscript is two versions or drafts of the same piece, undated but ca. 1890s. There are several inscriptions located in the margins and at the top of one page (in purple colored pencil) which were done in another hand. On ruled cream paper. Expected paper folds and isolated grime including scattered fingerprints. One of the pages was cut horizontally along the center and later repaired verso. Bearing a small handwritten label on the reverse of one of the pages, probably affixed by a former collector or archival repository. Else near fine. 8.875" x 13.75."

This lot has much to offer the serious collector of scientific manuscripts. First, manuscripts signed by Becquerel with similar outstanding scientific content are unusual, while manuscripts of this length--approximately 500 words--are even more rare. Second, two successive drafts of the same treatise permit the layman to see Becquerel's actual writing process, from scientific ideation to explication, by way of more than a dozen of Becquerel's edits, strikethroughs, and rewordings. Third, this treatise testifies to the competitive and collaborative nature of scientific inquiry. The treatise was Becquerel's response to criticism recently advanced by the French mathematician Moise-Emmanuel Carvallo (1856-1945) on Becquerel's theories regarding crystalline light absorption.

This manuscript probably dates from the 1890s, when European physicists like Becquerel, Carvallo, Woldemar Voigt, Sir David Brewster, and others were making great strides in the fields of crystallography and optics. The scientists were investigating how light was absorbed and reflected through crystalline material. Contemporary scientific journals document the scientists' findings, and also show how the results were contentiously debated. As Professor Ernest Merritt summed it up in a period scientific journal, "Investigations bearing upon the quantitative relation between the coefficient of absorption and the direction of vibration have been undertaken by Becquerel, Schwebel, Carvallo, and others. The results are, however, not numerous, and are in some cases contradictory…"

Becquerel's manuscript is translated nearly in full, with punctuation silently added to improve clarity:

"Observations relative to the communication of M. Carvallo by M. Henri Becquerel

The interesting experiments of M. Carvallo furnish me with the opportunity to more precisely explain the hypotheses to which I had conducted my research on the absorption of Light and on phosphorescence, and from where I deduced the formula of which there is no question.

One can suppose that the phenomena of absorption are due to the existence of intermolecular movements, either from the bodies of the molecules themselves, or from the ether which surrounds them, movements that would be either synchronous or harmonic to the vibratory light-absorbing movements ["des mouvements vibratoires lumineux absorbés."]

The phenomena of absorption observed in crystals can be explained in supposing that the vibratory movements, polarized rectilinearly and which are formally absorbed, break down in the interior of the crystal in three movements, the directed components of which follow three rectangular directions, in order to combine anew once exited from the crystalline environment.

One is compelled to think that the intermolecular movements are oriented along the three rectangular directions and that the absorption is only produced by the components of the movement of light running parallel to the direction of the intermolecular movements. These directions are those for which elastic reactions from the environment are parallel to the displacements.

In the majority of the observed cases with the biaxial crystals, there is no absorption when the vibrations coincide with one of the principal rectangular directions; the intermolecular movement would also be nil in this direction.

Perhaps these considerations extend to the movement of light spreading through crystallized bodies; in this case the only vibrations spreading to the interior of unadulterated crystal matter, would be vibrations running parallel to the three axes of optical elasticity…"

Antoine-Henri Becquerel came from a family of well-respected French physicists. After holding a few government positions, Becquerel transitioned into research and academia. His early studies focused on light absorption and deflection, phosphorescence, magnetism, and gases. In 1896, Becquerel discovered natural or spontaneous radioactivity by conducting experiments with uranium salts. Becquerel rays were later named after him; they later became known as radioactivity (a term coined by Marie Curie.) In 1903, Becquerel was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics along with Marie and Pierre Curie.

Moise-Emmanuel Carvallo was a French mathematician and astronomer, and like Becquerel, also came from a family of scientists. Carvallo submitted his thesis on optical theory to the Sorbonne in 1890, and in the same year, became a mechanical investigator at the Polytechnical School in Paris. There, he would also teach and serve as director of studies between 1909-1920.

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.


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