How Marie Curie’s Eureka Moment Started a New Scientific Revolution
This is not a new story. It’s a story told by her remarkable life, by books and in movies. But I think that many stories need to be told again from time to time, stories of people who can be a role model for all of us and especially for young women and men.
Marie Sklodowska-Curie is the heroine of my story. She was born in Warsaw in 1867, the youngest of five children in a family that struggled to make ends meet after the father lost his job. She was raised in Warsaw during the Russian occupation. Marie had a turbulent childhood, losing her sister who died of typhoid fever and her mother who died of tuberculosis.
Marie eventually rejected her religious faith. She was a brilliant student and was awarded a gold medal on graduation from high school. Her dreams of a higher education could not be fulfilled in Russian-dominated Poland, where girls were not allowed to attend university. She joined the Floating University, an underground educational organization which held secret educational sessions, providing Polish youth with an opportunity for an education that was free of the ideology of the governing foreign powers. The locale of the school sessions changed frequently to avoid detection by the Russians. Marie was taught physics, natural history, Polish history and culture.
Working as a governess, the 24-year old Marie was able to save enough money for a train ticket to Paris and enrollment at the Sorbonne. She was able to move in with her sister who was married and living in Paris. Marie enrolled as a student of physics in the Sorbonne in 1891. While at Sorbonne she was introduced to Pierre Curie, an instructor of physics and chemistry. Pierre was thrilled with Marie’s drive and intellect and proposed marriage to her. In his letter of proposal Pierre wrote: “It would be a beautiful thing to pass through life together hypnotized in our dreams: your dream for your country, our dream for humanity, our dream for science.” Pierre Curie and Marie Sklodowska were married in 1895.
This was the beginning of an extraordinary scientific partnership. It was not long before the Curies turned their attention to Becquerel’s discovery of the mysterious uranium radiation. They observed that the intensity of the radiation was in direct proportion to the uranium content in the sample and nothing they did to the sample could stop the radiation. They concluded that the source of the radiation was the atom itself and began the search for other elements that showed similar activity. They studied pitchblende, an amorphous, black uranium oxide, a mineral that was well known for its uranium content. They found that this mineral was far more radioactive than uranium itself and concluded that it must contain other radioactive elements in addition to uranium. Using basic chemical refining methods they isolated an element that had 400 times the radioactivity of uranium.
This was the Curies’ Eureka Moment that marked the beginning of modern science. The term “Eureka Moment” is widely used in the history of science to indicate the discovery of a new phenomenon. It is attributed to Archimedes who exclaimed the word Eureka, meaning “I found it” in Greek, on his discovery of buoyancy while taking a bath. They named this new element polonium, in honour of Marie’s native Poland. Further refining revealed the existence of another unknown element, which was later named radium, in recognition of its power of emitting energy in the form of rays. The Curies recognized the medical possibilities of this type of radiation and in a presentation Pierre Curie described the potential of radium in treating cancer. The term radioactivity was not invented by Becquerel but by Marie Curie, who was inspired by Becquerel’s findings.
In 1903 Marie Curie became the first woman in France to earn a doctoral degree in physics. Her doctoral thesis was about radiation and her professors declared that it was the greatest contribution to science ever written. There were rumours of a Nobel prize for Marie Curie but members of the French Academy of Sciences attributed the brilliance of Marie’s work to her husband Pierre. Again, it was unthinkable for a woman in those prejudicial times to be involved in professional scientific research, let alone be nominated for a Nobel prize. They lobbied quietly for the prize to be split between Becquerel and Pierre Curie. But Pierre had different ideas. He insisted that Marie had originated the research, planned all the experiments and developed the theories explaining the phenomenon of radioactivity. The 1903 Nobel prize in physics was finally awarded jointly to Henri Becquerel, Pierre Curie and Marie Curie.
In order to appreciate the prejudicial attitude toward women scientists, we may reflect on the following quote from the Bible re-stated by the President of the Swedish Academy during the awards ceremony: “It is not good that man should be alone, I will make a helpmeet for him.” This is an unbelievable comment made by the highest official of the Swedish Academy, a comment that could not be made today.
In a tragic turn of events Pierre Curie died in an accident in 1906 at the age of 47, leaving Marie with two daughters. The joyful time of this incredible husband and wife team ended and Marie Curie was faced with the gigantic task of moving forward the research on radioactivity.
Marie was appointed to her husband’s academic post, becoming the first woman professor at the Sorbonne in the 650-year history of the university. She edited and published all of Pierre Curie’s unpublished work and published a massive work of her own, Traite de Radioactivite, a fundamental treatise on radioactivity and one of the most important books of science written in the twentieth century.
International recognition for Marie Curie was growing and in 1911 she won the Nobel prize in chemistry, becoming the first person to win the Nobel prize twice. The Swedish Academy of Sciences had to overcome some opposition in awarding the prize. The opposition was a result of Marie’s affair with physicist Paul Langevin, a married man estranged from his wife and former student of Pierre Curie. The affair had resulted in a press scandal. In the xenophobic and prejudiced France of the early twentieth century, Marie Curie’s academic opponents exploited the affair to block her membership in the Academy. Marie Curie died in 1934 at the age of 66. Her death was attributed to a bone marrow disease believed to have been contracted as a result of her long term exposure to radiation. In 1995 Marie and Pierre Curie’s remains were enshrined in the Pantheon in Paris.
Marie Curie was a fascinating character and has been the subject of books, plays and movies. Her legacy extends far beyond her pioneering scientific achievements. At a time when professional science was a man’s world, her quest for scientific truth, her drive, persistence and courage in overcoming so many social obstacles made her an ideal role model for young women. She donated most of her Nobel prize money to friends, family, students and to the war effort during World War One. She insisted that monetary gifts and awards be given to the scientific institutions she was working with rather than to her. During the war she established a front-line X-ray service in the battlefields of France and Belgium, training the staff and driving the X-ray vans herself. Albert Einstein said that Marie Curie was probably the only person who could not be corrupted by money. The work of Henri Becquerel and Pierre and Marie Curie started a new scientific revolution and inspired scientists around the world to focus on the atom, the smallest indivisible piece of matter, as physicists believed at that time.