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The Passions of Mme. Curie

By 1906, as Ms. Quinn suggests, Pierre Curie was beginning to show signs of radiation sickness. He had debilitating pains in his back and legs and his hands were so damaged by radiation burns that he apparently had trouble dressing himself. No one knew then just how dangerous and insidious exposure to radioactivity was. No present-day scientist would spend ten minutes in a laboratory as contaminated as that of the Curies, let alone years at a time, and it is astonishing they weren’t both killed. In fact, however, Pierre was run over by a horse-drawn wagon filled with cloth for military uniforms. His skull was crushed under one of the wheels, and he was killed instantly. He had been returning from a meeting and had, it appears, absent-mindedly stepped into the street. If, as Ms. Quinn speculates, he had been in better health and more agile, he might have gotten out of the way.

Marie Curie was told soon afterward. In her journal for that day, she writes,

I enter the room. Someone says: “He is dead.” Can one comprehend such words? Pierre is dead, he who I had seen leave looking fine this morning, he who I expected to press in my arms this evening. I will only see him dead and it’s over forever. I repeat your name again and always “Pierre, Pierre, my Pierre,” alas that doesn’t make him come back, he is gone forever, leaving me nothing but desolation and despair.

Publicly, she hardly ever mentioned his name again; but privately, she addressed him in her diary as if he were still alive. “Did you say it then? I don’t remember how many times have you said to me, my Pierre: ‘we really have the same way of seeing everything.’ ” In photographs from this period, she has a fierce, embattled look; one would not suspect that she is about to enter into a romantic relationship with Paul Langevin that would create a scandal in Paris.

Paul Langevin was born in Paris in 1872, making him five years younger than Marie Curie. Unlike Pierre Curie, he went to all the right schools and did brilliantly. It seems he first encountered Pierre Curie when he was seventeen and came to study under him at the Ecole municipale de physique et chimie. Afterward he went to the Sorbonne and then placed first in the entrance examination for the Ecole nor-male. By 1902 Langevin had a joint appointment at the Collège de France and at the Ecole municipale, where he replaced Pierre Curie when the latter went to the Sorbonne in 1904. After Pierre died, Marie took over his post at the Sorbonne and Langevin took over hers at the Ecole supérieure nor-male in Sèvres. Langevin was by all accounts a marvelous teacher. He did not publish often, but he had the respect of physicists like Einstein, who claimed that Langevin would have discovered the theory of relativity if Einstein had not.

Ms. Quinn leaves out half of Langevin’s life. He lived until 1946, long enough to see his daughter Hélène, who was born in 1909, just before his affair with Marie Curie, return from Auschwitz. Yet Ms. Quinn dismisses him long before this, writing:

By 1914, according to his son André, Paul and Jeanne [his wife] were back together. Later on, with his wife’s acquiescence, Langevin had another mistress. But this time he chose a woman of the acceptable kind: she was an anonymous secretary.

For Quinn, Marie Curie was the victim and Langevin the aggressor. My own impression is that Marie Curie knew what she wanted, and what she wanted was Langevin. The problem was that Langevin had been married since 1898 and was the father of four children.

Langevin must have been one of the few people—certainly one of the few men—with whom Marie Curie could share her feelings about the loss of Pierre. His own marriage had been a very stormy one, and he talked of divorce while continuing to have children. In the summer of 1910, Marie Curie wrote him from her vacation by the seashore,

My dear Paul, I spent yesterday evening and night thinking of you, of the hours that we have spent together and of which I have kept a delicious memory. I still see your good and tender eyes, your charming smile, and I think only of the moment when I will find again all the sweetness of your presence.

That was the summer when the two became lovers. They rented an apartment together near the Sorbonne where they could be alone. What Ms. Quinn does not tell us—perhaps no one knows—is who wanted to make this arrangement. Who paid the rent? Langevin was a relatively unknown academic with a wife and four children to support. Would he have had the money to rent a spare Parisian apartment? Madame Curie, for her part, was by this time a world-renowned scientist, the well-paid administrator of a very large laboratory. Who was “keeping” whom? Langevin’s wife realized very quickly that her husband’s relationship with Madame Curie had now turned into something else. She was determined to break up this happy liaison by all means, fair or foul. It was, ironically, Marie Curie herself who supplied her with the necessary ammunition.

The lovers, even though they were sharing an apartment, continued to exchange letters, which they kept in a drawer. In the spring of 1911, someone, apparently hired by Madame Langevin, broke into the apartment and stole them. The most damaging one was written by Marie in September of 1910.

There are very deep affinities between us which only need a favorable life situation to develop. We had some presentiment of it in the past, but it didn’t come into full consciousness until we found ourselves face to face, me in mourning for the beautiful life that I had made for myself and which collapsed in such a disaster, you with your feeling that, in spite of your good will and your efforts, you had completely missed out on this family life which you had wished to be so rich in abundant joy….

Then she turned to the subject of Langevin’s wife.

Your wife is incapable of remaining tranquil and allowing you your freedom; she will try always to exercise a constraint over you for all sorts of reasons: material interests, desire to distract herself and even simple idleness…

Madame Langevin was at this time taking care of a child who had been born a year earlier, as well as three other children. Marie has something to say about this as well.

If the separation took place, your wife would very quickly stop paying attention to her children, who she is incapable of guiding and who bore her, and you could take up little by little the preponderant direction.

Marie now gave Langevin detailed advice on what to do.

It is certain that your wife will not readily accept a separation, because she has no interest in it; she has always lived by exploiting you and will not find that situation advantageous. What’s more, it is in her character to stay, when she thinks you would like her to go. It is therefore necessary for you to decide, no matter how difficult that is for you, to do all that you can, methodically, to make her life insupportable… the first time she proposes that she could allow you to separate while keeping the children, you must accept without hesitation [the italics are in Ms. Quinn’s translation and presumably in the original] to cut short the blackmail she will attempt on this subject. It’s enough now that Jean [Langevin’s oldest child, who was then eleven] continues to board at the lycée and that you live in Paris at the School; you could go to see your other children at Fontenay or have them brought to the Perrins’ [This is a reference to the physicist Jean Perrin and his wife. Langevin had done some of his earliest research with Perrin]; the change wouldn’t be so big as you think and it certainly would be better for everyone. We could maintain the same precautions we do now for seeing each other until the situation becomes stable… [emphasis added]

Before Madame Langevin made these and other letters public, there were rumors about the affair and, as usually happens, people chose sides. Einstein remarked that Madame Curie “was not attractive enough to become dangerous for anyone.” In the meanwhile, Langevin moved back in with his wife. Perhaps things would have calmed down, except that both Langevin and Madame Curie were invited to the Solvay Conference in Brussels in 1911 and planned to go. This was too much for Madame Langevin, and she decided to make the letters public.

There then entered one of those figures who suddenly cause a scandal and then vanish into obscurity. Gustave Téry was a journalist who had been active on most sides of most questions—all with equal vigor. In his younger years he had lampooned the Catholic Church and had taken Dreyfus’s part in the famous affair. By 1909, he had founded a newspaper named l’Oeuvre and had taken a sharp turn to the right. He was now a chauvinist and an anti-Semite who referred in articles to the “German-Jewish Sorbonne.” He saw in Madame Curie’s affair another way of attacking the Sorbonne. Téry published selections from the letters, including the long one from Marie outlining her plan. He commented incessantly on the affair in his newspaper, noting, for example, that Langevin was being referred to as the “chopin de la Polonaise“—“Chopin” then being a French slang word for a “patsy.”

To add to everything else, the Swedish Academy at this very time had voted to confer on Madame Curie a second Nobel Prize. The day before the letters were published, Madame Curie wrote to Svante Arrhenius, a member of the Swedish Academy, who had been one of her strongest supporters, to inquire whether in view of all the rumors circulating about her personal life, it would be better if she stayed away from the ceremony. Arrhenius assured her, by letter, that all would be well and that she could come. Six days later he changed his mind. The letters by then had been published, and Langevin had challenged Téry to a duel. Téry had named him explicitly in his newspaper and had called him a “boor and a coward”—dueling words. Pistols were chosen, but after the two men had lined up, Téry pointed his pistol to the ground, indicating that he had no intention of firing. Langevin then did the same and the matter was settled when the seconds took the pistols and fired them into the air. Later, in his newspaper, Téry wrote, “I obviously had scruples about depriving French science of a precious brain…” He, too, now disappears from Ms. Quinn’s narrative.

Arrhenius then wrote to Madame Curie informing her that if the Academy had known the facts outlined in her now published letter, they would not have awarded her the prize. Much to her credit, she stood her ground, replying to Arrhenius that “in fact the prize has been awarded for the discovery of Radium and Polonium. I believe that there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life…. I cannot accept the idea in principle that the appreciation of the value of scientific work should be influenced by libel and slander concerning private life.” She attended the award ceremonies in Stockholm.

One of the consequences of Langevin’s duel and the publicity surrounding it was that he and his wife arranged a legal separation, with her getting custody of the children. Marie Curie wanted him to seek a divorce, but Langevin refused, saying that he would not take “sides publicly against the mother of his children.” This, it seems, ended their affair.

It took many years before Madame Curie’s reputation was restored in France, and it might have taken longer had it not been for her work during the First World War. She installed portable X-ray machines in a fleet of eighteen vehicles, and tens of thousands of wounded soldiers were examined as a result. She trained the medical workers and when necessary drove to the battlefront to help repair the machines.

When her daughter Irène was eighteen, she also began to teach radiology, initiating a collaboration between the two women that continued in Madame Curie’s laboratory for the rest of her life.

By the time Marie Curie died in 1934, she had become a scientific icon comparable to Einstein and perhaps to Stephen Hawking in our own day. It is amazing that it took so long for the effects of radiation to kill her. She died in a sanatorium in the French Alps, after having operations for cataracts and suffering from lesions on her fingers from handling radium. The actual cause of death was pernicious anemia surely brought about by radiation exposure. But for nearly a decade before her death, the most interesting work in her laboratory was being done by others—especially by her daughter Irène and her son-in-law Frédéric Joliot.

One of the most unsatisfying things in Ms. Quinn’s book is her foreshortened treatment of Joliot. He was born in 1900, and was also an outsider from a completely nonreligious family. After his father died, he had to leave the boarding school that he had been attending, for a public school. Then, in 1920, he entered the Ecole municipale de physique et chimie industrielles, the very place at which Pierre Curie had taught and of which Langevin was now the director of studies. The entry on Joliot in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography notes that it was Langevin

who had a decisive influence on Joliot: he oriented the young man not only toward scientific research but also toward a pacifist and socially conscious humanism that eventually led him to socialism.

In 1942, it led him to join the then clandestine Communist Party.

Langevin, who seems to have remained friends with Madame Curie, learned that she had a stipend to pay an assistant at her Institut du Radium and, in 1925, Joliot took the job. There he met Irène Curie, who was also at the Institut, and they were married, in 1926. They had a daughter and a son. The daughter, Hélène, who was born in 1927, became a physicist, graduating first in her class from the very Ecole municipale that her grandfather had attended. In 1949, she married the grandson of Langevin, who was also a physicist. Hardly any of this is to be found in Ms. Quinn’s book. During the greater part of the time that Joliot and his wife were at the Institut, they worked on separate projects. But there was a four-year period, beginning in 1931, when they collaborated and produced the research for which they won the Nobel Prize in 1935.

This work was really in nuclear physics. It involved the production of radioactive elements by bombarding stable ones with nuclear projectiles. This is sometimes called “artificial radioactivity,” but I think the name is misleading. It is really a kind of nuclear alchemy, in which a stable nucleus absorbs some of the nuclear components of the bombarding particle and is transformed into a new isotope, which is radioactive. We now take this process for granted, forgetting that it had to be discovered by someone. During this work, they had some assistance from a young German physicist named Wolfgang Genter, who was to reappear in their life during World War II. Joliot was one of the people who discovered that, in nuclear fission, neutrons are released so that a chain reaction is possible. He made this discovery in 1939 and, unlike contemporary American scientists, published it in the open literature. It was read by German nuclear physicists and was one of the reasons they began their atomic-bomb program.

Joliot was fully aware of what his discovery meant. In fact, he tried to acquire “heavy water” from Norway and ordered six tons of uranium oxide to attempt to make a nuclear reactor. When the Germans invaded Paris, he managed to spirit away this potentially dangerous material. Soon after the capture of Paris, he was visited by some German bomb scientists. They left Gentner as a kind of liaison to their program. But Gentner was secretly a committed anti-Nazi. He made sure that nothing of value got to Germany, and he shielded Joliot, who had by now joined the Resistance. Since Joliot was a Communist, the American and British authorities kept him apart from the Allied effort to construct an atom bomb.

After the war, Joliot, although he opposed the government of General de Gaulle, was nonetheless largely responsible for creating the French nuclear-energy program. He died in 1958, two years after Irène’s death. Ms. Quinn ignores most of this part of the history as well, and her book would have benefited if she had added a final chapter on what happened to the family after Madame Curie died. Still her biography is the first I know of in English to show that Marie Curie was a passionate and complex person, and not a monument.

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