The radiation is named after the Soviet scientist Pavel Cherenkov, the 1958 Nobel Prize winner, who was the first to detect it experimentally under the supervision of Sergey Vavilov at the Lebedev Institute in 1934. Therefore, it is also known as Vavilov–Cherenkov radiation. Cherenkov saw a faint bluish light around a radioactive preparation in water during experiments. His doctorate thesis was on luminescence of uranium salt solutions that were excited by gamma rays instead of less energetic visible light, as done commonly. He discovered the anisotropy of the radiation and came to the conclusion that the bluish glow was not a fluorescent phenomenon.
A theory of this effect was later developed in 1937 within the framework of Einstein‘s special relativity theory by Cherenkov’s colleagues Igor Tamm and Ilya Frank, who also shared the 1958 Nobel Prize.
Cherenkov radiation as conical wave front had been theoretically predicted by the English polymath Oliver Heaviside in papers published between 1888 and 1889 and by Arnold Sommerfeld in 1904, but both had been quickly forgotten following the relativity theory’s restriction of super-c particles until the 1970s. Marie Curie observed a pale blue light in a highly concentrated radium solution in 1910, but did not investigate its source. In 1926, the French radiotherapist Lucien Mallet described the luminous radiation of radium irradiating water having a continuous spectrum.
In 2019, a team of researchers from Dartmouth’s and Dartmouth-Hitchcock‘s Norris Cotton Cancer Center discovered Cherenkov light being generated in the vitreous humor of patients undergoing radiotherapy. The light was observed using a camera imaging system called a CDose, which is specially designed to view light emissions from biological systems. For decades, patients had reported phenomena such as “flashes of bright or blue light” when receiving radiation treatments for brain cancer, but the effects had never been experimentally observed.