“Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.” ~Marie Curie
Marie Curie discovered radioactivity. This is a simplified and reductionist sentence but still, you should have that association in your mind with this woman because her work is that important. Though many focus on the love affair between her and her husband and sometimes, the more illicit love affair with a married man later in life as a widow, the real love affair was between her and the elements she isolated—polonium and radium—and the mysterious glowing substances they produced. I think probably what she was really in love with was the mystery and the urge to understand why, a love most scientists have for their subject which keeps them bent over desks for hour upon hour, day upon day and year after year…why? Why? The question is the quest. The desire to understand is a persistent and constant motivator.
“Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood.” ~Marie Curie
Did she know the radioactivity she was researching was deadly? No. Did she know it was making her ill? Not in the beginning but most probably for sure in the end. Did she stop? No.
Curie conducted her own experiments on uranium rays and discovered that they remained constant, no matter the condition or form of the uranium. The rays, she theorized, came from the element’s atomic structure. This revolutionary idea created the field of atomic physics. Curie herself coined the word “radioactivity” to describe the phenomena (biography.com).
It is critical to put things into context. Before Marie Curie, no one had uttered the words radioactive or radioactivity. Though she perceived and proved the existence of this mysterious quality, she did not understand where the radioactivity came from. At this time the general belief was that the atom was indivisible. For a while after the discovery of electrons, scientists of her time believed it was they who were generating the mysterious rays. It took a while longer for the understanding that radioactivity is a product of the breakdown of the nucleus of the atom. Though Marie suspected for a while the radioactivity was generated by the disintegration of the atom, she cannot claim that discovery for her own. A man named Ernest Rutherford would finally be able to prove that in 1911. But it took Marie Curie’s research to detect this mysterious quality called radioactivity, then isolate the elements that were producing it, which led to the eventual understanding of nuclear physics that we have today.
Atomic science has changed our lives; it brought about the tech revolution we are currently living. The discovery that atoms are indeed made of component parts at the beginning of the 20th century catapulted us into a new era that most of us still don’t appreciate. Marie Curie was at the forefront of this. She could see the future coming; she could feel she was at the edge of it and it was this that kept pulling her forward.
In 1898 Marie Curie presented a paper detailing her research which “contained two revolutionary observations: the assertion that radioactivity could be measured thus providing a means to discover new elements, and that radioactivity was ‘an atomic property’” (Goldsmith 77).
In the laboratory that was aglow with what Marie referred to as “fairy light,” she worked with her husband and partner, Pierre, to isolate the elements she had theorized, sifting through pile after pile of the mineral pitchblende. The pitchblende had the uranium removed from it, so it was less expensive for them to acquire this “waste product” and process it to extract the tiny quantities of radium that were left in it. They needed to have a sample of the radium they had discovered. “This involved working on a much larger scale than before, with 20 kg batches of the mineral – grinding, dissolving, filtering, precipitating, collecting, redissolving, crystallising and recrystallising. In 1902 Marie eventually isolated radium (as radium chloride), determining its atomic weight as 225.93. The journey to the discovery had been long and arduous” (mariecurie.org.uk).
I include the above quote to make sure it is clear that the work was physically strenuous and that it was Marie’s persistent dedication and devotion to her work that made it possible. Above all, Marie Curie’s “greatest achievement was in employing an entirely new method to discover elements by measuring their radioactivity” (Goldsmith 88).
Marie and Pierre did not know the dangers of radioactive materials at this point but they were warned that it may not be healthy. Though they were both continually ill, they chose to ignore this.
Marie was able to make very detailed and precise measurements; measurements other scientists were unable to make. She was able to persist with the equipment available and fine-tune it until it revealed to her what she needed to know. She was meticulous in her work both with the measuring as well as the theorizing. She had a genius and visionary mind and was able to communicate it to others that they may understand and apply it to their own work. She placed a high value in the good that science could bring and on sharing openly discoveries that could lead to humanitarian advances. She created protocols, developed standards and research techniques and created laboratories and factories, to subsidize her scientific research. She published detailed books and papers about her discoveries and theories. This was a very ambitious and hard working woman.
Her consistent scientific inquiry is what allows you to sit at your computer today.
“A great discovery does not issue from a scientists’s brain ready made, like Minerva springing fully armed from Jupiter’s head, it is the fruit of an accumulation of preliminary work.” ~ Marie Curie
She also developed the use of x-rays and began the branch of radiation therapy still used for health issues today. She helped with the war effort in WWI by driving around portable x-ray machines called “little Curies” to front lines with her daughter, Irene.
Adrienne Rich composed a poem about Marie Curie. I have read it over and over throughout my life, each time feeling something different. Even now, upon writing this, I feel my reaction/response to this poem shifting. Is it my age? Is it that at a more advanced age I understand that sometimes the things we are obsessed with are not necessarily good for our health, yet we pursue them nonetheless because without them, perhaps, life is not worth living? Because this is what life is for us, this quest? Or was she reckless and self destructive? I think now, no. But if yes, is anything wrong with that? Do we sometimes self-destruct in our quest for knowing? If we discover radioactivity, is there a cost to that? Should there be? Was that the exchange for what she discovered; intuited —a new insight into the workings of the universe? Is there always an exchange for that? I am beginning to think yes. Is the exchange equal to what is discovered? It often seems so.
It is not popular to speak this way these days where a balanced and healthy lifestyle is promoted as the optimum existence. Many commit to juice cleanses and gym memberships and exude a glow of vigor always or worry we are not living “right.” But I have begun to wonder if imbalance is actually the stuff of genius.
“I am one of those who think like Nobel, that humanity will draw more good than evil from new discoveries.” ~Marie Curie
Living in the earth-deposits of our history
Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
For living on the earth in the winters of this climate
Today I was reading about Marie Curie
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil
She died a famous woman . denying
her wounds denying
came from the same source as her power
Adrienne Rich, 1974
Marie Curie was not her given name. She was born Marya Salomee Sklodowska. She was born in Poland. Poland at that time was an occupied nation. Occupied by Russia. At the time of her birth and throughout her childhood, Polish people were forbidden to speak their own language. Polish culture was being wiped out. Marya did not like this. She rebelled against it; a fighter from the start.
“I feel everything very violently … with a physical violence and then I give myself a shaking, the vigor of my nature conquers and it seems to me that I am coming out of a nightmare … First principle: never to let oneself be beaten down by persons or events.” ~Marie Curie
Curie had a very poor upbringing. But education was valued. She worked on a farm as a tutor saving her money for her older sister, that she may go study at the Sorbonne in Paris first. As an extra bonus she taught Polish to the peasant children on the farm—a crime that could have got her sent to Siberia. Once her sister completed her studies, Marya enrolled in the Sorbonne herself.
In Paris she changed her name to the French equivalent: Marie. The Sorbonne was free at the time. Living in a small “garret room” with no heat in the Latin quarter, she worked hard in perfecting her French.
At the Sorbonne, she as one of 23 women among 2000 at the School of Sciences.
“All my mind centered on my studies. I divided my time between courses, experimental work and study in the library In the evening I worked in my room, sometimes very late into the night. All that I saw and learned was a new delight to me. It was like a new world opened to me, the world of science which I was at last permitted to know in all liberty.” ~Marie Curie
Understand that she had this experience as her initial imprinting. She learned how to persevere under terrible conditions. And this stayed with her. She fought for all that she attained. The death of her mother and sister at a young age left her with depression which she battled all her life. Still that did not stop her. And what exactly, you may be asking, did she attain?
“I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale.” ~Marie Curie
Marie Curie struggled with the challenges of work and motherhood. The birth of her first child and those challenges left her exhausted and depressed. In Obsessive Genius, Barbara Goldsmith writes how “This major problem has been ignored or glossed over in many Curie biographies” ( 70). Through all of this challenge she was studying radiation on one of Pierre’s electrometers, perfecting her ability to finally measure radioactivity and “open the door to atomic science” (Goldsmith 71). She would go into panic attacks about the well-being of the child and run home in breaks from her heavy worklife to nurse her. She was relieved of this somewhat when her father-in-law moved in and agreed to take over the childcare.
For me, Marie Curie has always been an example of someone who was committed to their work and fought to keep doing it no matter what. She was driven by her ambition and her desire to know.
She was a woman in science in a time when women were not in science, breaking glass ceilings one after another. A woman whose discoveries have such ramifications on our lives today; she opened that door, those doors – for us – so we could take a good long look, and she made sure no one would stop her.
Would that we could be as respectful and arduous in our quest to understand how to interact with these discoveries as she who discovered them.
Marie Curie is a #nastywoman of STEM.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2018
Goldsmith, Barbara, Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005.