204. MARIE CURIE: Our happy place
“Humanity surely needs practical men who make the best of their work for the sake of their own interests, without forgetting the general interest. But it also needs DREAMERS, for whom the unselfish following of a purpose is so imperative that it becomes impossible for them to devote much attention to their own material benefit.” – Marie Sklowdowska Curie
Marie and Pierre Curie needed a lab. Even though they had discovered two new elements, Polonium (named after Marie’s native country of Poland) and Radium, the elements still had to be isolated and measured. The Curie’s had figured out that the ore pitchblende had small amounts of radium within it and now needed a suitable workplace where they could extract the new element from the ore. The University of Paris, where Pierre worked, let them use an old dissecting shed which wasn’t being used because it was deemed unfit to leave cadavers in. That’s right, unfit for dead people but fine for a couple of physicists!
A visiting scientist described the place as follows: “It was a cross between a stable and a potato-cellar, and, if I had not seen the worktable with the chemical apparatus, I would have thought it a practical joke.”
In Marie, Pierre had found his dream woman: someone who loved science as much as he did. In one of the rare letters from him (there weren’t many since they were hardly ever apart) he proposed that they spend their life together: “It would, nevertheless, be a beautiful thing in which I hardly dare believe, to pass through life together hypnotized in our dreams: your dream for your country; our dream for humanity; our dream for science.” After they got married, Pierre was so fascinated by Marie’s research on radioactivity, he gave up his own work on crystals to help her. With barely any money or materials, the pair humbly worked away in their crappy, cold, wet and wooden shed. For four years, from 1898 to 1902, Marie processed piles and piles of pitchblende. This painstaking task involved boiling the raw ore again and again to seperate all the various elements. After four years of ardous work and after processing one tonne of pitchblende, her sample of radium chloride weighed 0.1 gram. Now that’s finding a needle in a haystack.
When Pierre and Marie were awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work, Marie was initially left out of the honour. Only after Pierre complained was Marie awarded the Prize. You can imagine the Nobel committee discussing it: “She’s just his wife, surely she didn’t contribute. Pierre must have done ALL the work.” Just for good measure, Marie won ANOTHER Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry in 1911, becoming the first person to win twice and still the only person to have won in two different science fields. And just for extra good measure, their daughter Iréne Joliot-Curie won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935. Talk about an over-achieving family.
Of course at the time, the Curies were unaware of the health dangers of working with radioactive materials. Both of them suffered radiation burns and poisoning. Pierre would even burn himself intentionally to track the effects. Today, Marie’s notes and personal belongings are still highly radioactive and will be for another 1500 years. Although Marie would eventually succumb to radiation-related illness at age 66, Pierre was tragically killed in 1906 after getting trampled by a horse carriage. Marie was devastated: “It is impossible for me to express the profoundness and importance of the crisis brought into my life by the loss of the one who had been my closest companion and best friend. Crushed by the blow, I did not feel able to face the future. I could not forget, however, what my husband used sometimes to say, that, even deprived of him, I ought to continue my work.”
That she did, with Marie dedicating herself to the new science of radioactivity for the rest of her life. She took over her husband’s professorship, becoming the first female professor at the University of Paris, founded the Radium institute, pioneered the use of X-rays and the use of radiotherapy to fight cancer. Not only that, during World War I and eager to help in the war effort, Marie designed and helped build mobile X-ray units that could assist surgeons operate on wounded soldiers. She would drive these mobile units to the front lines herself and was responsible for over 200 X-ray units being installed which treated over a million soldiers.
But it was those early years spent with Pierre in the abandoned shed where Marie spent her happiest and most creative days. It’s clear that the setting for creative work is not important at all. Einstein got his best ideas in a Swiss patent office, Marie’s best years of her career were in a damp, dirty, derelict university ‘potato-cellar’. You don’t need the best laboratory, biggest studio or the fanciest tools – just a curious mind, a clear purpose, dedication, and love for the work. Having a lover, peer and companion who shares your vision doesn’t hurt either.