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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.

Roentgen himself had no such model in mind. Indeed the existence of atoms was still being debated. He concentrated on the properties of the rays, not on how they were produced. The striking thing that Roentgen found about them was that they could readily penetrate matter. When they did so, moreover, the emitted radiation would make a visible imprint on a photographic plate, with the darkness or lightness of the image reflecting the different degrees of opacity of the body through which the X-rays passed. Late in December 1895, he succeeded in “photographing” the bones in his wife’s left hand—opening a new era in medicine. He won the first Nobel Prize in physics in 1901 for this work.

The next step was taken by the French physicist Henri Becquerel. In February 1896, he made the more or less accidental discovery that the substance potassium uranyl disulfate spontaneously emitted radiation. In other words, to use Madame Curie’s term, it was radioactive. This was very puzzling. It appeared as if uranium was pouring out energy at what seemed to be a constant rate—it took a few years before it was realized that the activity actually fell off with time and that the rate of this falloff, which could be very slow, was characteristic of the atom that was decaying. Where did this energy come from? Did it fill space and somehow transform itself into the radiant energy of decay? Or was the conservation of energy itself violated? Neither Becquerel nor anyone else could say, and as a good empiricist he contented himself with the facts. It was at this point that the Curies started their work together.

The idea of studying radioactivity appears to have been entirely Marie Curie’s. She was familiar with Becquerel’s work and with the fact that it seemed to have come to a dead end. One can imagine that it did not take much persuading to get Pierre to join the enterprise, which began on December 16, 1897, according to her laboratory notebooks. Pierre was a master builder of scientific instruments. Their idea was to measure the degree that air became “electrified” when the radiation emitted by the uranium passed through it. The degree of electrification, or “ionization” as it is technically called, would be a measure of the strength of the radioactive source. This is where Pierre’s sensitive instruments for measuring electric charge came in. The first question that had occurred to Madame Curie was whether this spontaneous radioactivity was a property of uranium alone, or whether there were other radioactive elements. It was here that the Curies made their first great discovery.

By the winter of 1898, Marie had tested a variety of elements for radioactivity. She found no conclusive evidence that any were emitting radiation, apart from the uranium. This is not surprising. She had been testing relatively light elements, like gold and copper. These do have unstable types—“isotopes”—but when these elements are found in nature, the unstable isotopes have largely decayed and what one is mostly left with is the stable isotope, which is not radioactive. But heavy elements like uranium do not have stable isotopes. In fact, they would have already decayed into lighter elements if they didn’t decay so slowly. It can take over a billion years for half of any sample to decay, and that is why they are still around and still decaying. This was certainly not understood when the Curies were doing this work. On the contrary, it was their discovery that started the process toward this understanding.

Then on February 17, 1898, Marie had what turned out to be the inspired idea of testing pitchblende—the heavy black material out of which uranium had first been extracted. They tested it for radioactivity and discovered, to their astonishment, that it was more active than uranium itself. What could that mean? At this point the Curies made an assumption that brought something entirely new into physics and that we have applied ever since. Since pitchblende, which was a very messy compound consisting of several elements, was more active than uranium, it must contain an unknown element that was emitting this radiation. From that time to this, we have used the products of radioactivity—the particles emitted—to identify what has produced it. In fact, many of the particles we now deal with are so unstable—they disappear so rapidly—that they can only be identified through what they emit.

With the help of a chemist, Gustave Bémont, the Curies attempted to isolate the unknown element. Finally, by July, after processing tons of material in vats, they were ready to announce their findings; they wrote in a scientific journal that “if the existence of the metal is confirmed, we propose to call it polonium after the name of the country of origin of one of us.” By the end of the year they were able to announce the discovery of a second new radioactive element, which they named radium. They spent the next several years painstakingly measuring its properties, their research culminating in a 1903 paper by Pierre Curie and a collaborator, Albert Laborde, in which they measured how much energy a gram of radium can release in an hour—enough to boil water.

Probably Ms. Quinn would not agree, but to me this was the high point of their research. It was left to the great New Zealand-born experimental physicist Ernest Rutherford and his young collaborators to take the next steps in understanding radioactivity. I have recently reread the early papers of the Curies and also the 1902 paper of Rutherford and Frederick Soddy entitled “The Cause and Nature of Radioactivity.” Reading this 1902 paper is like stepping into a new world—the world of modern physics. To understand why, we must recall that at the turn of the twentieth century there was a debate about the role of the atom. Did matter really consist, as Newton put it, of “solid, massy, hard, impenetrable movable Particles…so very hard, as never to wear or break in pieces”?1 This is what one would call the “physicists’ atom.” It has a mass, a shape, an electric charge, and so on.

The implicit assumption was that if one could actually divide and redivide matter indefinitely, one would ultimately arrive at this ineluctable component. On the other hand, there was the “chemists’ atom,” what Einstein referred to more as a “visualizing symbol than as knowledge concerning the factual construction of matter.”2 In other words, one could use the atom as a model for chemical reactions based on the assumption that these reactions took place as if matter was composed of atoms, without committing oneself to the reality or inner structures of these building blocks.

No one had any difficulty with this use of the atomic hypothesis. But there was a vivid debate among scientists at this time about the actual existence of the physicists’ atom. The most important skeptical voice was that of the philosopher-physicist Ernst Mach, who used to ask the question “Haben Sie einen gesehen?“—“Have you seen one?”3 As far as one can tell, the Curies were firmly committed to the physicists’ atom, and they could never fully accept the idea that this atom was unstable. One can well understand their reluctance. As their own research showed, radioactivity proceeds irrespective of the state of the radioactive matter. You can heat uranium, dissolve it, or paint it blue, and it will still continue to emit radiation at the same rate. The process appears to be without a discernible cause, indeed spontaneous. This was on the face of it quite different from Roentgen’s X-rays, which were produced by actually bombarding a piece of metal with electrons. What was the mechanism that produced the spontaneous radiation? That was a question that could not even be correctly formulated until the invention of the quantum theory three decades later.

Then there was the question of the energy. Where did it come from? At one point Madame Curie conjectured that a radiating element might lose mass as it radiates. In this she was quite right, but that is quite different from the idea that an individual atom—a building block—might lose mass as it decays, an idea the Curies, committed to the physicists’ atom, had enormous difficulty accepting. But this is just what happens. The lost atomic mass of the products that are decaying is converted into energy according to Einstein’s formula E=mc2. However, this insight had to await Einstein’s theory of relativity. Indeed, in the short paper in which he introduced this formula, in 1905, he wrote, “It is not impossible that with bodies whose energy-content is variable to a high degree (e.g., with radium salts) the theory may be put to the test.”4

Despite these problems, Rutherford in 1902 had no doubt whatever that radioactivity was an atomic phenomenon. His paper with Soddy has a concluding section that contains the following sentence:

Since, therefore, radioactivity is at once an atomic phenomenon and accompanied by chemical changes in which new types of matter are produced, these changes must be occurring within the atom, and the radioactive elements must be undergoing spontaneous transformation.

He did not suggest a mechanism by which this happened, nor was he overly concerned about the relation of lost mass to energy. His intuition told him what must be going on, and he was content to wait for the theorists to catch up. This gave him an enormous advantage over the Curies. For the next few years, while Pierre was alive, they spent much of their time trying unsuccessfully to avoid a real atomic description of radioactivity—something that Madame Curie continued to avoid even after Pierre’s death, in 1906. Rutherford had no such burden, and he and his colleagues and students made one fundamental discovery after another.

The death of Pierre Curie, on April 19, 1906, was a blow from which Marie never really recovered. Not only did their two young daughters—Irène, who had been born in 1897, and Eve, who was born in 1904—suddenly lose their father, but Marie lost her most intimate scientific collaborator and her ally in challenging the conventional values of the scientific establishment. In 1903, when Pierre was proposed for the Legion of Honor, he refused to allow his name to be put into nomination. When they won the Nobel Prize that same year—Marie being the first woman to have won it and the last in the sciences to do so until 1935, when her daughter Irène shared the prize in chemistry with her husband—they didn’t even attend the ceremonies. Marie was not well and Pierre decided that he couldn’t miss his classes—a position we cannot imagine any university scientist taking today. However, by the time of Pierre’s death the Curies were moving into the establishment. They had won several prizes in addition to the Nobel, and Pierre, with great reluctance, had allowed himself to be elected to the French Academy of Sciences.

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.

  1. 1

    This quotation is taken from Newton’s Opticks. The relevant passage can be found in the anthology The World of the Atom, edited by Henry A. Boorse and Lloyd Motz (Basic Books, 1966), p. 102. Excerpts from the papers of the Curies and Rutherford can also be found in this collection.

  2. 2

    See Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, edited by P.A. Schilpp (Library of Living Philosophers, 1949), p. 19.

  3. 3

    See my book Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos (Basic Books, 1993) for a fuller discussion, especially the chapter entitled “Ernst Mach and the Quarks.”

  4. 4

    See, for example, A. Pais, Subtle is the Lord (Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 148.

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