Marie Curie: Life, Times and Achievements
The scientific world would not be complete without the mention of one of its more esteemed members, Marie Curie. The discovery of the the elements of radium and polonium, the work that she worked on the atom and its structure, all helped in the basic knowledges of the composition of what constitutes our world as we know it.
The Formation of a Genius
Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. At the time of her birth her parents, Bronislawa and Vladislav Sklodowski,were both teachers in Poland. But after her birth, the mother was forced to give up her teaching post to take care of the brood, leaving the father to assume the breadwinners role for the family.
Her native country Poland had not been independent country for most of a century, being under the power of three countries, namely Austria, Prussia and czarist Russia. Growing up for Manya, as she is affectionately called in her family, was difficult indeed. Her parents, both ardent nationalists and patriots, both dreamed of a day that their native country would soon one day be an independent. Warsaw was in the part that was controlled by the Russians, and the Czar wanted to control the people by eradicating their language and culture. The Polish patriots were determined to regain their nation’s control. But Manya’s parents, in their roles as educators, did their best to go around the restrictions that were placed upon by the Russian authorities. This resulted in the firing of her father from his teaching post and being demoted to a lower teaching position. This did not stop here, as her father was subsequently demoted lower and lower for being a patriot and for harboring anti-Czarist views and his pro-Polish stance against Russia.
As her father was placed in lower and lower stations, the family’s economic situation eventually caved in. In the end, both parents lost their positions and had to take in boarders to supplement their income. Manya worked long our by helping in the preparation of meals for the boarders, but she still managed to win a medal of excellence at the local high school.
Marie hoped, like her brothers and sisters, to earn an advanced degree from a university.
Although her brother Joseph had been able to enroll at the University of Warsaw(where he went on to become a physician, like her sister Bronya, who studied in France for degree to be a physician), women were not welcome at the school. Before Bronya left, she(Marie), Bronya joined other friends in attending the Floating University.
This illegal night school got its name from the fact that its classes met in different locations, the better to evade the watchful eyes of the Russian overlords. Its students’ lofty goals went beyond self-improvement. They hoped their grass-roots education would raise the likelihood of eventual Polish liberation. This fly-by-night education could not the curriculum at any of the major European universities that admitted women. Although Maria understood this fact, at the Floating University she did get a taste of progressive thought and an introduction to new developments in the sciences.
Marie Curie 2
The Road to Recognition
Manya went to join her sister Bronya in Paris, enrolled at the Sorbonne and changed her name to Marie, and studying physics and mathematics, graduated at the top of her class in the fall of 1891. Marie went to live with her sister and her Polish husband, Casimir Dluski. Since both of them were patriots, they regularly participated in the activities of the active Polish Community.
Marie’s choice of a thesis topic was influenced by the recent discoveries of other scientists. In December 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen discovered a kind of ray that that could travel through solid wood or flesh and yielded photographs of living people’s bones. Roentgen called the mysterious rays X-rays, with X standing for unknown.
In early 1896, French physicist Henri Becquerel reported to the French Academy of Sciences that uranium compounds, even if they were kept in the dark, emitted rays that fog a photographic plate. He had come upon this discovery by mistake. Despite Becquerel’s findings, the scientific community continued to focus its attention on Roentgen’s X-rays, neglecting to focus on the much weaker Becquerel rays or Uranium rays.
The ignored uranium rays appealed to Marie Curie, who by this time is married to Pierre, whom she met a while back. Since she would not have a long bibliography to read, she could begin experimental work on them immediately. The Director of the Paris Municipal School of Industrial Physics, where her husband Pierre worked as a professor of physics, permitted her to use a crowded, damp storeroom as a laboratory.
Out of their efforts, Pierre and Marie Curie, with the French Becquerel, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for their fundamental work in radioactivity in December 1903. Marie went on to win the Nobel Prize for her work in the medical applications and chemistry of radium.
Marie Curie, died of leukemia July 4, 1934 at a sanitarium in Haute-Savoie in the French Alps, most likely caused by her constant exposure to radium. Because the dangers to constant exposure to radiocative elements at the time were not known, her research, ironically, aimed at harnessing the element to save lives, cost her her own in the process.
The Center for History of Physics. American Institute of Physics.
“Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity: Research Breakthroughs”.
4 December 2007.