My 21st Century Encounter with Marie Currie
Marie Sklowdowski-Curie (1867-1934) was a Polish born French physicist. Well known for the discovery of radioactivity (a word she coined), she became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, to win it twice, and the first woman in Europe to hold a Ph.D. in physics.
Married to Pierre Curie, Marie’s and the couple’s discoveries have significantly shaped modern science today. For example, today we are able to treat cancer, produce energy in nuclear plants, sterilize surgical equipment, and restore sight to the blind because of the discoveries. I will share a few lessons that she left for me and the modern world but first here are a few paragraphs about the encounter and experience I had with the discoverer of radioactivity.
In my fourth secondary school year, 2009, is when I first heard of Marie Curie. I was privileged to be under the tutelage of Monsieur Nyangulu, my physical science teacher. While some of my teachers came to class having read and understood their teaching script that teaching came out as acting, Mr. Nyangulu was different. He connected with the core of the subject and talked science as if he was present when some of the major discoveries were made. So when he taught me Radioactivity and mentioned the names of the major players in the discovery of radioactive substances, the name Marie Curie stuck in my head. I am sure Mr. Nyangulu must have mentioned other names like Becquerel, Rutherford, Debierne, but Curie was easier to remember due to its closeness to my father’s first name, Currie.
There could not have been a better year to learn about radioactive substances than the year 2009. The word “Uranium” was on everyone’s lips in Karonga. In previous three years leading to 2009, newspapers, radio stations, and NGOS provided a constant flow of news on how bad Uranium would be to the fresh water body, Lake Malawi, farm products and, even worse, on people. All this was due to the Kayelekera uranium project, owned by Paladin Africa, and commissioned by the late President Bingu wa Mutharika. Accordingly, with the radioactive Uranium in my backyard, and a fascinating teacher who had his own love for learning, I had all the reasons to love studying Radioactivity.
Forgive me for the history lecture I am still well aware that I want to talk about the lessons Marie Curie left for me and the world of today, that world be scientific or non-scientific
Lesson 1: With hard work and patience, face obstacles head-on
Expediency and the paths of least resistance are not the best way out of your current obstacles. Cutting corners, paying our way through hardships can bring instant results but these ways always come to haunt us. Living in the 21st century, one cannot believe the effort it took folks back in the 1800’s to get the results that we today we get at a click of the button. Subconsciously, we have been made to believe that “quick and fast is great and normal”. The media praises the youngster who quickly amasses wealth at a very young age, even when dubious means were involved. The church preaches instant success and miracles while despising one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, long-suffering. Since one of today’s most prized possession, the phone, has gotten smarter and faster, we also expect to achieve everything at this same pace- at the click of a button.
Contrary to my previously held childish idea that the discovery of the radioactive radium was pure luck, Marie and her husband tirelessly worked for their discovery. To prove to the doubting scientific Thomases of the old days that the radium was a new and not previously discovered element, they needed to extract a small amount of radium and show it to fellow scientists. They worked day and night, in unfavorably hot and poorly ventilated laboratory environments to extract 0.1 gram of radium from more than 1000 grams of uranium ore. For 4 years they continued their extraction until they reached the purest form of radium that became the accepted element 88 that appears on the Periodic Table today. Overcoming obstacles makes us grow and believe in our efforts, contrary to choosing the easy way which always turns out costlier.
Lesson 2: Sharing ideas and innovating for altruism
With words like “copyright”, “intellectual property”, “patent” and “patent theft” common today, the habit of sharing ideas doesn’t always seem very welcome. Let me be my own example. One day, after a long busy day at the hospital, on my way home I had an epiphany of how to revolutionalise telemedicine and doctor consultations in Malawi’s health sector. It was an overwhelming idea that was and still is very practical and could be life changing. I was so buried in thought thinking through how great it would work until I started thinking about “with whom should I share this idea?”, “who do I confide in and trust that won’t run away with this idea as their own for personal gains?”. Excitement and promise turned into annoyance, fear, and despair. I feared for the originality of my idea, the acknowledgement I would get and the loss I would suffer should someone just run away with it. These are all selfish but realistic fears in 2017 just as they were in Marie Curie’s time.
The above fears on sharing of ideas, theft of ideas, and acknowledgement are the reasons some scientists are more famous as pioneers of certain scientific ideas than others, but should we seek personal glory at the expense of furthering of ideas through collaboration? Today we acknowledge Sir Isaac Newton, not as much Robert Hook, for theories of gravitation, and Charles Darwin, not as much Alfred Wallace, on evolution through natural selection. Scientists of the old days preferred to practice in secret, perfect their science on their own and with a bang publish their individual findings for all the people to revere. Consequently, some set up poor experiments and falsified results on to be embarrassed in public.
Marie and her husband Pierre Curie, on the other hand, sought not fame or money from their ideas. Even when time came to make money from their discoveries, it got injected into more research that benefited the medicine industry we enjoy today. Marie thought of science as beautiful and of great use to the world. She said:
None of us ever intended to make any profit out of our discovery. Thus, we didn’t apply for patents and we always publicly announced the results of our studies as well as methods of extraction of the pure radium from the ore. Moreover, we always shared all our knowledge with other scientists whenever they asked us to. We found it very beneficial for the fabrication of radium (…) giving scientists and doctors the materials they needed. (Curie, Marie. 1924)
Hunger for money and individual fame can limit the development of your ideas through collaboration and the impact the ideas can have on the world when this hunger prevents you from sharing your ideas. But if you are convinced it is individual fame and money you are really after, sharing of ideas can still happen today after a few signatures on non-disclosure agreements and patents. Too arduous and unnecessary for Marie.
Lesson 3a: It’s evil to discriminate against others
Lesson 3b: Don’t let discrimination hold you back
Treating people unfairly because of their association or perceived association to a certain group is to discriminate. Whenever we fail to appreciate diversity we tend to exclude others and reject that their “kind” also exists. When Marie left Poland for France, it was because of discrimination against women: women should not be admitted to institutions of higher learning, the Poland of that time believed. After her discoveries, the media and the academia seemed not convinced that she was the brainpower behind the discoveries. Even though it was the husband Pierre who was the helpmate to wife Marie (as Pierre often very happily admitted to his colleagues) the media, without seeking clarification reversed the roles of the two married scientists. When she won her second Nobel Prize, after Pierre had unfortunately died, media reports in Europe and USA continued to doubt Marie’s ingenuity and hard work. Today, while we seem to be catching up on equality, there’s still room for improvement. We still charge tourists higher than locals based on their skin color, we still find fun in racist and tribalistic jokes that make others cry and feel dejected, we still offer lower wages to locals than to immigrants, and we still laugh at people’s speech accents.
To win awards, to give speeches and defend one’s ideas in a field that was dominated by men shows that Marie defied the prejudices the male scientists and society had towards women. While appreciating Marie’s nerves of steel in this respect, I cannot expect every woman, or every minority grouping or any group of people that is discriminated to share Marie’s determination and self-esteem. The panacea to discrimination is in realising that discrimination of any kind is evil and it limits other people’s potential. By identifying our beliefs, challenging our views, asking questions, listening, and practicing inclusion we can stop discrimination.
Lesson 4: Love your work so much that you don’t need convincing
Writing a few more paragraphs would be testing my readers’ “endurance”. Usually, this is the paragraph that loses the reader’s attention, assuming it hasn’t been lost up until this point. For this reason, the three lessons, facing obstacles with hard work and patience, sharing ideas for the sake of the world’s benefit, and shaking off discriminatory jibes (though not easy), should be enough lessons from the Life of Marie Sklowdowski-Curie.
From my first “encounter” with Marie while in secondary school to my second experience of her life (not expounded in this post) through a movie and her biography, it’s been lessons worth committing to memory.
Noellle, Marie. (2016). Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge [Motion Picture]. Poland
Ogelvie, Marilyn Bailey. (2004) Marie Curie: A Biography. Greenwood Press. USA
Curie, Marie. (1924). Pierre Curie: With Autobiographical Notes by Marie Curie. Google Books