During this time, she became interested in the Polish resistance movement.
Years Carnegie: The Contenders: Marie Curie
When she turned 22, Maria had her first taste of laboratory work in a secret lab set aside for Polish scientists. Maria moved to Paris at 24 to enter the elite Sorbonne University, where she registered under the name Marie Sklodowska. There she studied under the best physicists and mathematicians in France, including Nobel Prize winners.
By she had also received a licence in mathematics. Marie also met Pierre Curie in As she left Paris for the summer to return to Poland, Pierre asked her to come back and stay with him. She did return to Paris, and to Pierre, and the two were married in July The two were happy during their newlywed phase, sharing a lab together. She began to study the electrical current emitted by metals, forming the hypothesis that radiation is an atomic property, issued from the atom itself.
In the course of her experiments, Mme. Curie found two new radioactive elements — radium and polonium. At this point, Pierre gave up his own work on magnetism and began to assist Marie with her research. Pierre and Marie both began feeling the effects of prolonged exposure to radiation, which eventually led to the death of their premature baby. However there was good news as well, as on December 11, , the Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. Marie Curie is only one of 11 women to have won Nobel Prizes in the sciences.
Marie had another baby on December 16, , named Eve. On April 19, , Pierre Curie was killed when he was struck by a wagon, crushing him. Georges Sagnac, a friend and collaborator, eventually confronted her. But read scientific publications she did. In labs across Europe, scientists were studying new and surprising phenomena. Henri Becquerel was noting the emission of a different kind of mysterious rays, those from uranium salts. Thomson discovered negatively charged particles, which we now know as electrons and which we now know are the source of X-rays.
At first, she and other scientists were baffled about the source of the high-energy emissions. She wondered whether the emitted rays were violating a basic law of thermodynamics: the conservation of energy. Finally, she posited a daring hypothesis: The rays emitted might be a basic property of uranium atoms, which we now know to be subatomic particles released as the atoms decay.
Her theory had radical implications. It further meant that atoms are not necessarily stable. The device allowed her to measure extremely low electrical currents in air near mineral samples that contained uranium. She soon repeated the experiment with thorium, which behaved in similar ways. But she was puzzled by data that showed that the intensity of the radiation emitted by uranium and thorium was greater than expected based on the amounts of the elements she knew to be in her samples. In she indeed identified one of the substances and named it polonium, after her homeland.
Five months later, she identified a second element, which the world came to know as radium. Pierre put his crystals aside to help his wife isolate these radioactive elements and study their properties.
Marie extracted pure radium salts from pitchblende, a highly radioactive ore obtained from mines in Bohemia. The extraction required tons of the substance, which she dissolved in cauldrons of acid before obtaining barium sulphate and other alkalines, which she then purified and converted into chlorides. The separation of radium from the alkalines required thousands of tedious crystallizations. Working in a dilapidated shed with broken windows and poor ventilation, she nonetheless was able to make sensitive measurements. It is remarkable, says Baisden, that Curie calculated the atomic weight of radium so accurately given such deplorable conditions.
Both Curies were plagued by ailments—burns and fatigue—that, in retrospect, were clearly caused by repeated exposures to high doses of radiation. Both, too, were resistant to the suggestion that their research materials caused their ailments. In , Curie became the first woman in France to earn a PhD in physics. Professors who reviewed her doctoral thesis, which was about radiation, declared that it was the greatest single contribution to science ever written.
Rumors of a Nobel Prize began to circulate, but some members of the French Academy of Sciences attributed the brilliance of the work not to Marie, but to her co-workers. These skeptics began to lobby quietly for the prize to be split between Becquerel and Pierre. But Pierre insisted to influential people on the Nobel committee that Marie had originated their research, conceived experiments and generated theories about the nature of radioactivity.
Both Curies shared the Nobel Prize in physics with Becquerel in It was the first Nobel to be awarded to a woman. 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.
Moreover, the notion that Marie was a mere helpmeet to Pierre—one of the more persistent myths about her—was an opinion widely held, judging from published and unpublished comments by other scientists and observers. At the Sorbonne, it was Pierre who got the plum job, a full professorship. Marie was not promoted.
Pierre hired more assistants and made Marie the official head of the laboratory, freeing her to conduct experiments and for the first time, be paid for it.
The most successful collaboration between a husband and wife in the history of science ended suddenly on April 19, , when Pierre, apparently lost in thought, walked into traffic on the rue Dauphine and was killed instantly by an onrushing carriage. Hundreds of people—students, artists, photographers, celebrities—lined up outside the university on November 5, , hoping to attend her first lecture.
She gave no outward sign of mourning. She began by summarizing the recent breakthroughs in physics research. She wrote a diary during this time, addressed to her late husband, about continuing their research. In , she published a page treatise on radioactivity. Neither Curie nor Langevin discussed their relationship with outsiders.
The front-page coverage of the scandal threatened to overshadow another news story later that year: her second Nobel Prize. This one, in chemistry, was for the discovery of polonium and radium. In her acceptance speech in Stockholm, she paid tribute to her husband but also made clear that her work was independent from his, spelling out their separate contributions and describing the discoveries she had made after his death.
At the end of , Curie became very ill.
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She had an operation to remove lesions from her uterus and kidney, followed by a long recovery. In , she began to travel again and return to science. In March of that year, Einstein paid her an extended visit, and later she opened and headed a new research facility in Warsaw. As she was setting up a second institute, in Paris, World War I broke out.
She outfitted 18 portable X-ray stations that could treat wounded soldiers on the front lines. She sometimes operated and repaired the machines herself, and established more permanent X-ray posts during the war. Eve became a journalist and wrote the definitive biography, Madame Curie , published in It was another record: the first time both a parent and child had separately won the Nobel Prize.
And once the tabloids moved on from the Langevin scandal, her image as a homewrecker faded. But there were deliberate efforts to shape her story. Meloney learned that the Curies had never patented the process for purifying radium. As a result, other scientists and U. Curie was now unable to afford the element she had discovered. American women would be inspired to give to Curie, Meloney figured, only if her image as a scientist—which stereotypically suggested someone dispassionate, even severe—could be softened.
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