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The Passions of Mme. Curie

Marie Curie: A Life

by Susan Quinn
Simon and Schuster, 509 pp., $30.00

1.

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 which involved Langevin himself. In fact, things got so bad that members of the Swedish Academy—as we learn from Ms. Quinn’s recent biography—tried to persuade her not to accept the second Nobel Prize which they had just awarded her.

Maria Salomea Sklodowska was born on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, the youngest of five children. Wladyslaw, Maria’s father, while a school official and not a scientist, had a keen interest in science which he shared with his children. The first tragedy of Marie Curie’s life occurred when she was ten and her mother died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-two. Maria’s early childhood, and that of the other children, alternated between moments of hope and despair as their mother tried one “cure” after another while her condition inexorably deteriorated. It is little wonder that a brother and sister of Maria became doctors and that she herself devoted much of her professional life, after radioactivity had been discovered, to finding uses of it for medical purposes.

While this was going on, Maria’s father lost his job as the assistant director of a local school. In order for them to earn a living, the family home was turned into a small private boarding school, but nothing was allowed to interfere with Maria’s education. It was clear to almost everybody that she was unusually gifted. When she finished high school, at the age of fifteen, her father, who seems to have been a man of exceptional understanding, insisted that she “drop out” for a year and spend time with some maternal uncles in the country. Ms. Quinn describes it as a year of “an unending round of all-night dances and general hilarity.” It was the only year in Marie Curie’s life that could even remotely be described that way.

When she returned to Warsaw, it seemed out of the question for Maria to go on to a university. Since Warsaw University did not admit women, she would have to go abroad, and for this there was just no money. At first she did private tutoring and then took a job as a governess—eventually, at age eighteen, with the well-off Zorawski family. But she kept studying. Ms. Quinn quotes from a letter written at the time to her cousin:

At the moment I am reading

  1. Daniel’s Physics, of which I have finished the first volume;

  2. Spencer’s Sociology in French;

  3. Paul Ber’s Lessons on Anatomy and Physiology in Russian.

I read several things at a time: the consecutive study of a single subject would wear out my poor head which is already much overworked. When I feel myself quite unable to read with profit, I work out problems of algebra or trigonometry, which allow no lapses of attention and get me back into the right road.

While she was working as a governess, Maria and her older sister, Bronia, made a plan for Bronia to go to Paris to study medicine, then to send for Maria after she completed her studies. In the meanwhile Maria would help support both Bronia and their father. This is what happened, but it nearly didn’t when Maria and the Zorawski’s eldest son, Kazimierz, fell in love and planned to get married. When the Zorawskis heard about this, they absolutely refused to approve the match. However, Maria stayed in the employ of the Zorawskis for another fifteen months—partly to fulfill her financial obligations to her sister and, no doubt, hoping to continue her relationship with Kazimierz. There is an odd parallel between the outcome of this relationship and what eventually happened with Langevin. In both cases the men involved did not quite have the courage to make the final break with their families, and in both cases Marie Curie was left behind.

Such were Maria’s feelings about Kazimierz that she almost changed her mind in 1889, when her sister wrote that she was both finishing her studies and getting married to a fellow medical student, which meant that Maria could finally come to Paris. If, at this point, she had married Kazimierz and stayed in Poland, the history of modern physics would have been quite different. As it was, she spent the next year in Warsaw looking after her father and saving money. Finally, in November 1891, she left by train—fourth class—for Paris and the Sorbonne. She was twenty-three. Her sister had wanted Maria to move in with her and her new husband. But she was put off by his gregarious manners, and for the rest of her student days she lived in “bachelor quarters” in various garrets.

Maria Sklodowska began signing her name “Marie” almost as soon as she arrived in Paris. She wanted to study science and had the good fortune to arrive at the Sorbonne at a time when it was undergoing something of a renaissance. One of her professors was Gabriel Lippmann, who would win the Nobel Prize in physics in 1908. Another was Henri Poincaré, who was arguably the greatest mathematician of his time. These people seem to have accepted her simply as a brilliant and extremely well-prepared student who happened to be a woman; her years of study by herself turned out to have had advantages.

Marie’s first ambition was to return to Poland and become a science teacher—presumably in a high school, given the situation of women in the universities. But at this point—Ms. Quinn conjectures that it was through her professor Lippmann—she got a commission from something called the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry to study the magnetic properties of different kinds of steel. That kept her in Paris and led to her meeting Pierre Curie, who was eight years older than Marie.

By the time they met in April 1894, Pierre Curie was already an established physicist with his own laboratory. He had done fundamental work on the properties of crystals, and had turned his attention to the study of the magnetic properties of various substances as a function of temperature. The results of this work are still taught—with modifications—in modern physics courses, although their explanation had to await the development of the quantum theory. If he had lived longer, he might have gotten a Nobel Prize for this work as well. In fact, the collaboration between Marie and Pierre Curie was a remarkably close one—it seems clear neither would have made their later discoveries on his or her own.

The couple was introduced by a Polish physicist named Józef Kowalski and his wife, who had met Marie earlier. They had heard about Marie’s commission and the fact that she lacked adequate laboratory space to carry it out. Pierre Curie, who had space for her in his own laboratory, was himself then teaching at the Ecole municipale de physique et chimie industrielles—most definitely not one of the grandes écoles. In fact he was then, and for most of his life, a non-establishment figure. He had originally been educated at home and had never bothered to take his Ph.D., although he had acquired a licence at the Sorbonne, after which he immediately began a program of original research collaborating with his brother. Marie was also an outsider, a foreigner in France and from not quite the right class in Poland. Marie recognized this about the two of them at once. “There was between his conceptions and mine, despite the difference between our native countries, a surprising kinship, no doubt attributable to a certain likeness in the moral atmosphere in which we were both raised.” They married in July 1895 in the Town Hall in Sceaux and went on a trip to Brittany on two new bicycles purchased as a wedding present.

What happened next was linked to the early history of the discovery of radioactivity. In the fall of 1895—a few months after the Curies were married—the German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen discovered what he, and we, call X-rays. To put Roentgen’s discovery in modern, and entirely anachronistic, terms, he bombarded metal plates with electrons. When these electrons collided with the atoms in the metal, the atomic electrons in the metal were elevated to what, much later, became known as “excited states”—states of higher energy. The atomic electrons then relaxed back into their lowest, or “ground state,” and, to conserve energy in the process, emitted the electromagnetic radiation that Roentgen called X-rays.

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