Friday, November 7, 2014

Science Corner: Marie Curie

...Marie Curie was never easy to understand or categorize. That was because she was a pioneer, an outlier, unique for the newness and immensity of her achievements. But it was also because of her sex. Curie worked during a great age of innovation, but proper women of her time were thought to be too sentimental to perform objective science. She would forever be considered a bit strange, not just a great scientist but a great woman scientist... Professional science until fairly recently was a man’s world, and in Curie’s time it was rare for a woman even to participate in academic physics, never mind triumph over it.
~Julie Des Jardins, "Madame Curie's Passion" (Smithsonian Magazine, October 2011)

2011 marked a century since Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize - she won the first in 1903, in Physics (shared with her husband, Pierre, and Professor Henri Becquerel), for research on the "radiation phenomena" and her 1911 prize was in Chemistry, "in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element".

This year marks the fifth time a married couple has won a Nobel Prize (in this case May-Britt and Edvard Moser in Physiology or Medicine) and the fourth time the couple has shared a prize. Marie and Pierre Curie were the first couple, followed in 1935 by their daughter, Iréne Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot, who also won in Chemistry. Marie and Iréne were the first women to win Nobel Prizes.

Today marks the 147th birth anniversary of Marie Curie, who was born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland, in 1867. Although she soared academically, she was not allowed to attend university, which was men-only.  To continue her education past secondary school, she had to attend underground classes. Marie Curie worked as a tutor and governess for 5 years, studying physics, chemistry, and math in her spare time, until, in 1891, she had saved enough to go to Paris and attend the Sorbonne  By 1894, aged 27, she had advanced degrees in chemistry and mathematics. The same year, she met Pierre Curie, and they married in 1895. Their daughter, Iréne, was born in 1897.  By this time, husband and wife were working together, and they discovered polonium in 1898. A second child, Eve, was born in 1903. Pierre Curie died in an accident in 1906 and she took over his teaching post at the Sorbonne, becoming its first female professor.

Marie Curie won many awards (including some posthumously) and was a member of the Conseil du Physique Solvay, a conference to support and discuss scientific research - their first invitation-only congress was attended by herself, Max Planck, and Albert Einstein. During WWI, she promoted the use of portable X-ray machines in the field, and for that they were nicknamed "Little Curies". She never lost her enthusiasm for science, but her exposure to radioactivity cut her life short.  Marie Curie died in 1934 of aplastic anemia, aged 67.

Want to learn more?  Check out these books from the catalog:

Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science's First Family by Shelley Emling

Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie - A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss

The Curies: A Biography of the Most Controversial Family in Science by Denis Brian

Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith


Marie Curie [Biography]

Marie Curie and the History of Radioactivity [Science Museum]

Marie Curie's century-old radioactive notebook still requires a lead box [Gizmodo]

Marriage a Nobel tradition for prize winners  [RTE]

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