The Passions of Mme. Curie

Marie Curie: A Life

by Susan Quinn
Simon and Schuster, 509 pp., $30.00
Marie Curie
Marie Curie; drawing by David Levine


In the spring of 1913 Albert Einstein came to Paris for a series of lectures, accompanied by his wife. They spent an evening with Madame Curie, and the two families made a plan to spend time together in the Swiss Alps. They did so that summer in the Engadine, not far from Zurich, where Einstein was then teaching. The group consisted of Einstein, one of his sons, and Madame Curie and her two daughters, Eve and Irène, as well as a governess for the younger daughter, Eve. Soon after, Einstein wrote a letter to his cousin Elsa Löwenthal describing what happened. Here is a brief quotation from it.

Madame Curie is very intelligent, but has the soul of a herring [Häringseele in the German original], meaning that she is lacking in all feelings of joy and sorrow. Almost the only way in which she expresses her feeling is to rail at things she doesn’t like. And she has a daughter [Irène] who is even worse—like a Grenadier [an infantryman]. The daughter is also very gifted…

At the time that Einstein wrote this, Madame Curie was probably a much better-known scientist than he was. She had won two Nobel Prizes—the first, in physics, in 1903 jointly with her husband, Pierre, and the French physicist Henri Becquerel for their discovery of radioactivity, and the second, in chemistry, by herself for her discovery of the elements that she named radium and polonium. She was soon to become a modern heroine: she had made her way from Poland to Paris to become one of the very few women in all of Europe to study for an advanced degree in the sciences; and she had then heroically triumphed over every obstacle, bringing—at least this is how it was viewed at the time—the healing powers of radioactivity to the world, and eventually dying from the prolonged effects of her own discovery. Every account of her life talked of her “profound modesty,” her “purity of will” and “tireless devotion to work.” In short, and this seems to be what Einstein was saying, she sounded like one of the most tedious people imaginable.

A few years ago I said something about this to a French physicist I knew. After listening for a while, he interrupted to say, “Your problem, my dear Bernstein, is that you do not know the slightest thing about Madame Curie.” He then proceeded to give me a brief lecture, which thoroughly shook me. I had no idea that, by the summer of 1910, and lasting for well over a year, Marie Curie, then a widow, had a love affair with the French physicist Paul Langevin that scandalized France. Langevin was married and had four young children. The intimate letters that Madame Curie wrote to him found their way into the tabloid press, and the scandal provoked at least five duels in Paris, one of…

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