Monday, November 07, 2005

Marie Curie

Marie Curie's triumph -- of initiating the field of radiochemistry and a greater understanding of the structure of the atom -- is one of intellect and an obsessive-compulsive personality over adverse circumstances. To begin with, she was born a woman, and in 19th century Europe, the only time a bearded scientist wanted a woman in his laboratory was when it was time to serve him tea and cakes, or time to clean up after tea and cakes. Secondly, she was born in Poland -- not as unlikely as, say, Madagascar for its time, but yet it was only a mere province of Russia, and hardly the world's center of scientific learning.

Born on this day in 1867 in Warsaw, she was the daughter of a physics teacher-father and a schoolmistress-mother, so education was a matter of focus in her childhood home; unfortunately, the education of women was not a matter of focus in 19th century Poland, and despite her high level of academic achievement, Marie was mistreated during her early schooling and denied admission to a university.

One thing that Poland has long been good at is underground movements, and Marie continued her science education in clandestine meetings while working as a governess and saving enough money to send her sister Bronia to medical school in Paris. After 6 years of sacrifice, Marie was finally invited to Paris in 1891. She received a physics degree from the Sorbonne, graduating magna cum laude in 1893, and took an additional degree in mathematics a year later.

Although she had suitors (one poor lad swallowed laudanum to prove his love, prompting Marie to observe that his priorities were simply out of order), she ignored Paris social life in favor of her plan to return to Poland. However, during a brief trip home in 1894 she realized that Poland wasn't ready for female physicists, and she resolved to stay in Paris. This change of mind perhaps prepared her for the development of a more intimate friendship with a well-regarded though humble chemist named Pierre Curie. By the following year, they were married in a secular ceremony, and she moved into his lab at the Sorbonne to begin her independent research.

Working from Henri Becquerel's discovery of the unusual rays emitting from uranium and Wilhelm Roentgen's discovery of X-rays, Marie began to measure the properties of uranium and investigate whether other minerals emitted similar rays using an electrometer designed by Pierre. First she discovered that thorium gave off rays, but even more curious was the fact that pitchblende and chalcolite threw off more measurable activity than uranium, and that such activity could not be explained by the presence of traces of uranium and thorium.

She and Pierre worked laboriously in an abandoned, leaky shed on the campus to isolate the unknown elements by fractional crystallization, and in 1898, the Curies announced the discovery of a new element, named after Marie's homeland, called polonium. Deducing that the emission of Becquerel's rays was possibly a more general natural phenomenon rather than the property of a few substances, the Curies named this phenomenon "radioactivity" and Marie worked to isolate another element from pitchblende that proved to be able to emit heat and light for many years -- one gram of salts per 8 tons of pitchblende -- to be known as radium.

In 1900, the Curies presented their findings at the International Congress of Physics and, based on their experiments, they also announced that radiation spontaneously emitted from uranium, even when tested in a vacuum. Thus, Marie surmised, the rays were not a result of chemical reactions, but they emanated from activity within the atoms themselves.

This last pronouncement would have a most far-reaching influence on the study of the structure of the atom, and the scientific community chose to honor Marie and Pierre Curie, along with Henri Becquerel with the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics, for their studies of radioactivity. At first, the Nobel judges had not intended to make the award to a woman scientist, but Pierre went out of his way to make sure that they understood that the insights behind the work were Marie's.

Marie and Pierre became world famous overnight, in part for the curiosity about this brilliant young woman, a totally unfamiliar kind of icon. They were still enjoying the limelight when Pierre was tragically killed in a street accident 3 years later. Curie took her husband's teaching post at the Sorbonne (becoming the first woman professor there) and devoted herself to research.

She became a close friend of physicist Paul Langevin, with whom she shared research interests as well as anti-fascist politics; the Paris newspapers whispered that the relationship was an affair, and just as Curie's reputation began to suffer for it, the Nobel committee awarded her the 1911 Prize for Chemistry for her discovery of radium and polonium, thereby making her the first human being to win 2 Nobel Prizes. She took the opportunity to reassert the significance of her research -- that radioactivity is an atomic property of matter and could be used for finding new elements.

During World War I, Curie organized medical X-ray clinics and afterwards founded the Radium Institute of Paris. Curie was not aware of the dangers of radiation when she began her research and was careless about the exposure (she would regularly leave radioactive substances glowing at her bedside, and to this day her laboratory notebooks are hot), and later developed leukemia, but she would live to see her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie and Irene's husband Frederic take over her work at the Radium Institute. She died on July 4, 1934 in Savoy, France.

Here's an interesting fact: Greer Garson was nominated for an Oscar for portraying Curie in the 1943 biopic Madame Curie. The previous year, Garson won an Oscar for her performance in Mrs. Miniver and gave an acceptance speech that was an hour long. When Curie won the Nobel Prize in 1911, her banquet speech was approximately 2 minutes long.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps you should make it clear to the audience that Poland, once a sovereign and great center of learning , was being supressed by the Russian authorities after its partition. By saying that Poland was "hardly the world's center of scientific learning" you imply (whether intentionally or not) that Poland was in no way a place where this could occur, and that it consisted of backwards people. On the contrary, territorial Poland was the scene for many scientific achievemants, given the circumstances of the time. And because of Russian, Prussian and Austrian supression, Poles often conducted acheivements abroad (now often unjustly creditted to other nations). The underground movements, especially the Floating University in Warsaw, demonstrates the long held value, tradition and emphasis Poles place on education. Additionally, Poland having been the most tolerant nation in Europe prior to the partitions, was not responsible for the lack of tolerance its occupiers' displayed (Galicia, or the Austria-controlled parition of Poland, was most tolerant of her three pieces). And in the case of Warsaw, which was at the time governed by the Tsar, it was intentionally made difficult for Poles to study in an attempt to keep them uneducated and thus more easily under control. It should also be noted that until 1995, no woman was honored with a place in the Pantheon of her own merit until the remains of Marie Sklodowska-Curie were placed in its halls, who wasn't even French! This alludes to, as you say, the 19th century conditions for women, and speaks volumes about the tolerance in Western Europe (esp. in light of the recent riots in Paris).

Jeanne Martin

3:22 PM  
Blogger RSchuler said...

These points are well-taken. As you point out, Poland was an important source of scientific minds, even if the advancements cultivated by such minds -- due to political and other circumstances -- would, during Marie Curie's time, only see the light of day in other parts of the world.

Unfortunately, many of these external pressures against the education of the Polish people persisted through much of the 20th century -- all the more reason to pay tribute to the achievements of Polish expatriates.

3:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks...great article on Marie Curie. She won a Nobel prize in Physics for her work on Radioactivity and she won a Nobel prize in Chemistry for her work on polonium and radium. She might be the only person to win Nobels in both categories.

9:33 PM  

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