For Innovators, Rewriting the Rules Is Elemental

Marie Curie in her laboratory, 1913 (Alamy Stock Photo)

For technology leaders, every innovation presents unique challenges and opportunities. But what do you do when your innovation violates the known laws of physics?

If you’re Marie Curie, you rewrite them.

In 1898, the French-Polish physicist discovered radium, the most radioactive substance on earth, a million times more so than uranium. But radium posed a dilemma for Curie: It emits a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy. If energy can be neither created nor destroyed, then where does the element’s radioactivity — a term she coined — come from?

Curie theorized that radioactivity arises from the motion of subatomic particles, meaning that atoms are not inert as previously thought. Her insights foreshadowed Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which in 1905 postulated that mass and energy are equivalent and, under certain conditions, interchangeable. For her work with radioactivity and chemistry, Curie received two Nobel prizes, a feat matched by only three other individuals in history.

As a teenager in school, I learned about her groundbreaking research and her pioneering role in scientific advancement. But it wasn’t until I became a technology executive that I fully appreciated Curie’s example — and her iconoclasm.

Technology leaders, particularly those of us specializing in innovation, understand that today’s shiny new object inevitably gives way to tomorrow’s even shinier one. To borrow a physics metaphor, innovations can exhibit something of a half-life. To further human progress, Curie believed we must always be willing to confront and, when necessary, jettison the cherished paradigms that shape prevailing assumptions. Even the laws of thermodynamics, for centuries considered inviolate, must bend to compelling new evidence. The conventional wisdom, over the long run, can turn out to be neither.

Within Curie’s lifetime, the conventional wisdom held, for example, that flying was only for the birds and insects — until the Wright brothers set their sights skyward. When Curie was a child, instantaneous communications between New York and San Francisco became a reality when Alexander Graham Bell dialed his associate on a telephone. In Curie’s day, people tended to view cancer as a death sentence. But within only a few years of radium’s discovery, scientists began putting it to use in radiation therapy to combat the disease.

Innovation has always upended longstanding orthodoxies, at a pace that only seems to accelerate with the advent of cloud computing. In ways that would have made Curie, Bell, the Wright brothers and their contemporaries marvel, cloud-based digital networks are expanding organizations’ ability to collaborate on research, extending their visibility into supply chains and the interconnected operations of trading partners, broadening their access to contingency workers where and when they’re needed, and streamlining their ability to plan strategically through predictive analytics and artificial intelligence.

Yet as rapidly as innovation unfolds around us, sometimes it fails to arrive fast enough. In a tragic irony, dangerous levels of radiation exposure caused the aplastic anemia that eventually cut short Marie Curie’s life in 1934. But the spirit of innovation that her discoveries kindled lives on in every little girl and boy who’s ever posed the question, “Why not?” Today, on International Women’s Day, innovators of every age, scientific discipline and technological pursuit honor Curie’s enduring legacy.