The Courage of Knowledge: Marie Curie, the Mother of Modern Physics
The life and career of Marie Curie, who challenged the world of physics with her pioneering concept of radioactivity, added two more elements (Radium and Polonium) into the Periodic Table, won two Nobel Prizes -- one in Physics and another in Chemistry, became the first female professor of the University of Paris, introduced applications of radio isotopes for the first time in medicine, and finally died as a martyr of science as a result of high levels of exposure to radioactivity, was but a saga of The Courage of Knowledge, as the movie on her life by Marie Noëlle in 2016 was titled. Her body was found to be completely radioactive at the point of death and had to be interred into a coffin lined with nearly an inch of lead to prevent the radiation from harming those who come to honor her at her burial! Together with her husband, Pierre Curie, she nurtured a family of Nobel Laureates, with Pierre Curie her husband winning Nobel Prize in 1903, and Irène Joliot-Curie, her daughter, and her husband Jean Frédéric Joliot-Curie winning it in 1935, for their contributions to the field of Radioactivity.Marie Curies life witnesses to how a person could elevate oneself from a lowly life situation to the heights of glory, armed with the sheer audacity of courage.
Birth of Courage
Marie Curie, née Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born in Warsaw in the Kingdom of Poland, which was part of the Russian Empire, in 1867. Her family had lost the property rights, being part of the Polish patriotic uprisings was made too poor to support Marie’s education. She worked as a full time home tutor for seven years in order to support the medical education of her older sister Bronisława. Later on in 1891, with the support of her sister Marie moved to Paris to take bachelor’s degrees in physics and mathematics at Sorbonne University. She struggled to keep both ends meet.
The turning point of her life was, when Marie met Pierre Curie, who fell in love with her. He appreciated her as a woman of genius. It was a love that enriched them mutually. In 1895, they got married and continued to publish path-breaking research papers on radioactivity. In 1903, Marie earned her PhD for her thesis entitled “Recherches sur les substances radioacitves” (French: Research on Radioactive Substances) and won in the same year the Nobel Prize in Physics along with Pierre and Henry Becquerel for their discoveries on radioactivity.
The joy of Curie family life did not last long and Pierre died in a street accident in 1906. Crossing the busy Rue Dauphine in the rain at the Quai de Conti, he slipped and fell under a heavy a heavy horse-drawn cart and died instantly. Marie was left behind with two little daughters, Irène Joliot and Ève. It was an irreparable loss for Marie. University of Paris decided to retain the chair that had been created for her late husband and offer it to Marie in the same year. She accepted it, thus becoming the first woman professor at the University of Paris. In 1911, Marie was awarded with the second Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work with radium and polonium. She was the first person to receive Nobel Prizes in two different disciplines.
During the First World War (1914-1918), Marie developed portable X-ray machines for expediting the treatment of wounded soldiers. She also produced radon gas, which was excessively used for sterilizing infected tissues during the war.
Marie Curie died on 4thJuly 1934, due toaplastic anaemia believed to have been developed due to her long-term exposure to ionizing radiations, the danger of which was unknown at the time. She was exposed to radiations from radioactive isotopes, which she regularly carried in her pocket. She was interred at the cemetery in Sceaux alongside her husband, Pierre. Six years later, their mortal remains were shifted to the Panthéon in Paris.
Audacity of Knowledge
Radioactivity of elements like Uranium was a powerful concept that shook the foundations of physics. In those days, atoms were considered as the tiniest and indivisible particle. Discovery of radioactivity laid bare the internal structure of atoms. As per the new concept,an atom possesses a nucleus at its center with electrons orbiting it. This concept evolved into the atom model of Ernest Rutherford (1911). Marie Curie’s hypothesis of radioactivity challenged the very understanding of matter at its most elemental level and set off a scientific revolution in physics!
The courage to propose a radically new concept had its cost. In the case of Curie family, it is not an allegorical statement. They paid for it through their lives. Marie and her daughter Irene were both martyrs of their own discovery.Both died due to the after effects of exposure to nuclear radiation. Pierre Curie was also radically affected by it, though he died due to another reason. Marie Curie once said: “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.” It is audacity of knowledge, par excellence!
Resilience to Adversity
Student days of Marie Curie was full of stagnation, frustration, and challenges. She had to wait for years to start her studies due to lack of funds. Even after entering Sorbonne University, one of the few prestigious institutions in Europe to admit females for research, Curies had tough times. Having arrived in France as a penniless Polish student, she was subjected to misogynistic attitudes and comments. Initially, many of her colleagues refused to accept Radium as a new, undiscovered element. Curies had to perform elaborate experiments for four years risking their lives to separate traces of pure radium, which was as rare as 0.1 gram per tons of ore.
The tragic death of Pierrein 1906 was a life-shattering event in Marie’s life. In 1910, about four years after the death of Pierre, Marie entered a romantic relationship with a married man and the father of four children, Paul Langevin, a scientist five years her junior and a former student of Pierre. As the news broke, the Swedish Academy of Sciences tried to dissuade her from coming to Stockholm to receive her second Nobel Prize so that the adulteress should not shake hands with the Swedish king! But Marie made a bold reply to them and said: "The prize has been awarded for the discovery of radium and polonium. I believe that there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life. I cannot accept ... that the appreciation of the value of scientific work should be influenced by libel and slander concerning private life."Of course, the love affair was put to a halt, only after squarely damaging her reputation as a Nobel Laureate. Marie could win back her name and fame during the First World war, during which she criss-crossed France and delivered portable X-ray machines to doctors on the battlefield. Marie Curie said: "Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained".
Intoxicated by Curiosity
Marie Curie was overwhelmed by the inebriating beauty of science. She perused her research with absolute passion and complete dedication. In her student days, there were times when she struggled to make both ends meet. She earned a little money by cleaning laboratories. She even rationed her intake of food until, on more than one occasion, she collapsed of weakness.She said: “I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale." Marie Curie was a self-motivated person intoxicated by her curiosity to know.
Ability to Teamwork
Marie Curie had the opportunity to connect with the right person at the beginning of her carrier. Pierre Curie appreciated her genius as he worked with her. Proposing to her he said: “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.”Theirs was a magical team in the history of science, producing path-breaking contributions and radical revolution in physics.
Marie was also an open person. She was prepared to share her knowledge to other scientists, without the fear of manipulations by them. Irrespective of the huge efforts she undertook along with her husband to separate Radium from its ore, they did not want to patent the process. They believed that their contributions should be freely available for others for further development, which contributed vastly to the development of medicine (radiologic examinations and cancer treatments) and industry (industrial radiography) and science of radioactivity.
Marie Curie, with the exceptional courage of knowledge, revolutionized the science and technology of our times and is rightly called, the Mother of Modern Science.