Now is the Time to Understand More, so we May Fear Less


Marie-curie-notebook

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

[Marie Curie]

She was a physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity —her research papers are still radioactive more than 100 years later. 

Marie Curie discovered two new chemical elements —polonium (named after her native country) and radium. She carried out the first research into the treatment of tumors with radiation, and she was the founder of the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw, which are important medical research centers.

Curie was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in France, and the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize. She's the only person to ever win two Nobel Prizes in (both) physics (1903) and chemistry (1911).

The other really important fact about her life is that she published her research to establish priority over her discoveries. She did not patent the procedure for extraction and purification of radium, something which would have made her and her husband Pierre, also a scientist, very wealthy. They believed that, “It would be contrary to the scientific spirit.” So it remained open source.

In a 1974 biography, Robert William Reid says:

The [research] idea was her own; no one helped her formulate it, and although she took it to her husband for his opinion she clearly established her ownership of it. She later recorded the fact twice in her biography of her husband to ensure there was no chance whatever of any ambiguity.

It [is] likely that already at this early stage of her career [she] realized that… many scientists would find it difficult to believe that a woman could be capable of the original work in which she was involved.

In the paper where she detailed her findings, Curie described how much greater the activities of pitchblende and chalcolite were to that of uranium. She wrote, “The fact is very remarkable, and leads to the belief that these minerals may contain an element which is much more active than uranium.” Later she would recall how she felt “a passionate desire to verify this hypothesis as rapidly as possible.”

She and husband Pierre announced the existence of an element they named polonium in July 1898. Radium (Lat. for ray) came on December 26 of the same year. Alone and together, the Curies published 32 scientific papers, including one that announced that diseased and tumor-forming cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells when exposed to radium.

The Curie's research was crucial in the development of x-rays in surgery. During World War I Curie put aside her lab work to equip ambulances with portable x-ray machines, which she herself drove to the front lines. She outfitted 200 mobile radiological units, constructed some 20 hospitals, and of the former, drove one of the cars herself (or with a driver), serving in turn as driver, crank operator, mechanic, tire changer, nurse at the front lines and radiological technician. She even offered the gold of her Nobel medals to be melted down to aid the war effort. 

In Madame Curie: A biography, published in 1937 now available in reprint, the scientists' daughter Eve provides an honest historical account of the scientist's life and work. The book was written from the review of letters to and from Madame Curie to many people, the memories of people that knew her, drawing from her lectures and speeches, and the memories of Eve and her other daughter Irene, herself a scientist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. 

Despite her success, Marie continued to face great opposition from male scientists in France, and she never received significant financial benefits from her work. In 1911, when Nobel Prize winner (chemistry) Curie was denied a seat in the French Academy of Sciences, Albert Einstein sent her a letter of support. In it he says:

Highly esteemed Mrs. Curie:

Do not laugh at me for writing you without having anything sensible to say. But I am so enraged by the base manner in which the public is presently daring to concern itself with you that I absolutely must give vent to this feeling. However, I am convinced that you consistently despise this rabble, whether it obsequiously lavishes respect on you or whether it attempts to satiate its lust for sensationalism! I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty, and that I consider myself lucky to have made your acquaintance in Brussels. Anyone who does not number among these reptiles is certainly happy, now as before, that we have such personages among us as you, and Langevin too, real people with whom one feels privileged to be in contact. If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don't read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.

With most amicable regards to you, Langevin, and Perrin, yours very truly,

A. Einstein

P.S. I have determined the statistical law of motion of the diatomic molecule in Planck's radiation field by means of a comical witticism, naturally under the constraint that the structure's motion follows the laws of standard mechanics. My hope that this law is valid in reality is very small, though.

Einstein's letter has aged well and could be used appropriately for still too frequent situations today.

Marie_Curie_and_Albert_Einstein

In photographs of participants of the world-famous Solvay Conferences (funded by a Belgian industrialist of that name), she was in the place of honor next to Einstein, Lorentz and Poincare.

By the late 1920s Marie Curie's health was beginning to deteriorate. She died on 4 July 1934 from leukemia, caused by exposure to high-energy radiation from her research.

The best way to have less fear in our lives is to understand more. Marie Curie was a self-educated visionary. Her research was done without salary or funding, four years in the mud on the floor of a shack into which the rain poured through a leaking roof, separating milligrams of radium from tons of pitchblende, using an iron rod as pounding tool to crush the ore, as similar to the technology of Amazon Indians. 

Curiosity can help us learn about the things we don't know, so we can demystify them rather than fear them. “Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas,” said Curie.

Much remains to be done, but it won't happen as quickly nor as easily as we would like to think.

Madame Curie: A biography is a historical gem worth reading more than once.

 

[image above via Wellcome Trust; Curie and Einstein via wikimedia]