Feb 14, 2021

Marie Curie: Intelligence Personified

On a cold winters’ night in November 1891, 23-year-old Maria Skłodowska rode 40 hours on a train from Warsaw, Poland to Paris, seeking a college education, then seen as an exceptionally divergent move for a girl. Twelve years later, this remarkable woman would be known as Marie Curie - and subsequently, go on to become a two-time winner of the Nobel Prize. As a towering figure in the fields of both chemistry and physics, Madame ‘Marie’ Curie is most famous for the wondrous discovery of the elements polonium and radium.

Ever since Curie was a child, she was repeatedly praised for her prodigious memory, and eventually graduated with a gold medal after completing high school - who knew that this very medal would transfigure into one that was worth the respect of the entire world? In an age in which the scientific community made it clear that women were not welcome, Curie worked extensively with Radium and the investigation of its therapeutic potential - later on, to be vital for cancer treatments, along with the coining of the term ‘radioactivity’, imperative for nuclear proliferation exercises by nation-states today. 

Radioactivity among other discoveries

At university, Curie was a student that always took the path less traveled. Fascinated by the then fairly unpopular Becquerel Rays, discovered by Henri Becquerel, Curie began to look into the emittance of these so-called rays from other metallic compounds. Working day and night, investigating the coating of metal plates with a thin layer of uranium salts, she measured the strength of the rays produced by the uranium using instruments designed by her husband, Pierre Curie.  When the instruments detected faint electrical currents in the air, Curie simply couldn’t stop there. She began to test more uranium compounds and found rays emitted much stronger than that of absolute, pure uranium. According to her hypothesis, this showed the clear presence of an element yet to be discovered. 

It was then that Curie coined the term ‘Radioactivity’. In a seminal paper, she outlined revolutionary discoveries about alpha, beta, and gamma rays emitted from the compounds she investigated. She showed, for example, that radioactivity was atomic, not chemical. The rays emitted from the several substances she studied were created by changes within individual atoms themselves and laid the foundation for atomic breakthroughs such as the well-known decomposition of an atom into protons, neutrons, and electrons. 

While we could go on about Curie’s discoveries and breakthroughs for eternity, it’s worth noting the extent to which Curie went to get her paper published as a woman. Seeing Becquerel race to get his publication released before Silvanious Thompson took credit for it, Curie knew that acting fast was what was going to get her work out in the open. In fact, she describes this as "a passionate desire to verify this hypothesis as rapidly as possible”. Although she was beaten in the race to tell of her discovery two months earlier by Gerhard Carl Schmidt in Berlin, she later ensured to prove her discoveries beyond any doubt by isolating polonium and radium in pure form. 

The Nobel Prize & Funding

Curie became the first woman in France to earn a Ph.D. in physics in late 1903, with acclaimed professors, including Albert Einstein himself declaring that her work was the greatest single contribution to science ever written. Although rumors of a Nobel Prize began to circulate, much of the French Academy attributed the credit to Marie’s co-workers, claiming that she was more of a ‘help meet’ as opposed to a true scientist. The academy dismissed any claims of a mere woman winning the prize and initially proposed the prize to be split between Becquerel and Pierre instead. Fortunately, Pierre insisted that Marie was the one that conceived the hypothesis’ about Radioactivity - he had repeatedly written that "women of genius are rare” and jumped at every opportunity to work with her and get her work published. 

It was in October 1903 that the Swedish academy agreed to split the Nobel Prize in Physics between Becquerel, Pierre, and Curie. Although the prize made headlines, the Swedish Academy was still skeptical. At the awards ceremony, the president who administered the prize quoted the Bible in his remarks about the Curies’ research: 

“It is not good that man should be alone, I will make a helpmeet for him”. 

As the Smithsonian effectively summarises: 

“Whether Marie Curie took the remark as an insult is not known—it surely rankles today—but it must be among the most grudging comments ever said to a laureate.”

Even despite her husband receiving a full professorship at the Sorbonne, Marie was still not promoted.  After Pierre’s death, Curie was more determined than ever to continue her work with Radium. The only problem was the sheer price of it, and the resources needed to continue her research. Many were reluctant to provide a woman of science with funds; what she needed was publicity and large amounts of it, from a news source that was willing to publicize her findings without bias. 

Missy Meloney was one such reporter. She recognized that the general public would only be incentivized to invest in Curie’s science if her image as a hard scientist could be softened; in other words, made more feminine. 

“So Meloney’s articles presented Curie as a benevolent healer, intent on using radium to treat cancer.”

Although Marie disagreed and insisted that she was solely investigating the pure nature of it, the campaign worked wonders regardless; raising $100,000 for Marie to purchase radium in a matter of months. She was finally to be given the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her individual contributions in the isolation of pure radium. 

Impact in Modern-Day

Of course, no article about Madame Curie could ever be complete until her extensive impact on modern-day inventions, processes, and science, in general, is at least outlined. 

  • Curie was involved in the following inventions in ways such as but not limited to:
  • Organizing fleets of radiology cars in WW1 to carry X-Ray equipment for wounded soldiers
  • Recognizing that Radiation was to be used in fields such as Cancer Treatments and Astrophysics
  • Proposing that radioactivity was atomic and that the atom was to be devised into further parts
  • Isolating Polonium, used widely as a heater in space probes and an initiator for nuclear weapons
  • Isolating Radium, used widely in illuminating clocks, treat several diseases such as cancer, epilepsy, and varicose veins - as well as nuclear weapons.

Although she wasn’t alive to see her discoveries impact the world, it is with no doubt that her contribution to science had been immense, not only in her own work but additionally the influence she had on subsequent generations of nuclear physicists and chemists -  particularly of women.

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