Post by Minna Krejci
100 years after Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work with radioactivity, the world is still benefiting from her knowledge and wisdom — and that of “Zombie Marie Curie,” as depicted yesterday by the webcomic xkcd:
She does deliver a solid universal piece of advice here: “You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process.” Thanks, Zombie Marie Curie!
Ok, enough zombies – let’s look back at the real person. She surely knew a thing or two about becoming great, as the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman to win in two fields, and the first person to win or share two prizes. She is credited with developing the theory of radioactivity (and coining the term), as well as techniques for isolating radioisotopes and the discovery of the elements polonium and radium.
Curie had been known to deliver a few one-liner gems herself back in her day. When frustrated by endless attention from reporters who reported scandal every time she initiated a new relationship, she quipped, “In science we must be interested in things, not people.” (I imagine that she was referring to the media, since she certainly had been interested in people and had been devastated by the sudden death of her husband and scientific collaborator Pierre.)
She delivered another zinger directed at members of the scientific community who insisted on being involved in quarrels and feuds: “There are sadistic scientists who hurry to hunt down errors instead of establishing the truth.”
The work of Madame Curie and her husband had a lasting impact across nearly all areas of science: it forced a reconsideration of the foundations of physics, provided sources of radioactivity (radium) for others such as Ernest Rutherford to go on and probe the structure of the atom, and presented a new way to attack cancer using radiation. She managed to accomplish all of this while constantly facing barriers placed in her path for being a woman. She also made the unusual decision to not patent her process for radium isolation, to allow other researchers to use this knowledge freely to progress their own research.
The International Year of Chemistry 2011 coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize awarded to Madame Marie Curie, providing an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women in science in addition to generating worldwide enthusiasm about chemistry and its creative future.
Alan Alda is doing his part to spread this enthusiasm. On June 1, at the opening of the World Science Festival in New York, an all-star cast (including such names as Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Allison Janney, Liev Schreiber, David Morse and Bill Camp) will read a new play written by Alda about Madame Curie. Alda apparently loves the story of Marie Curie, which “is so important and dramatic, I wanted to explore it and write a play about it.”
The New York Public Library just finished an exhibit called Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout. The exhibit focused on the story of Marie Curie and her husband as told by the artist and writer Lauren Redniss, who recently published a book of images and narrative nonfiction by the same name. Redniss explored the use of cyanotype images to capture the essence of the Curie’s work:
“Cyanotype is a camera-less photographic technique. You expose chemically coated paper to the sun’s UV rays and the prints come out in shades of blue. The brighter the sunlight, the deeper the shade of blue–and the faster the print develops. I chose to make the book’s images as cyanotypes because I thought it added other layers of meaning: concentrated radium–one of the radioactive elements discovered by the Curies–glows a light blue color. In addition, Marie Curie described radium as having ‘spontaneous luminosity,’ and I think cyanotypes capture this feeling of internal glow. Finally, photographic imaging was critical to both the discovery of X-rays and of radioactivity, so it made sense to me that the book’s images would be made with a process based on the idea of exposure.” (via www.nypl.org)
Unfortunately, that blue-green glow that so fascinated Madame Curie led to her death from leukemia contracted from exposure to radiation — the health effects of radiation just weren’t known at the time. Yet another important discovery given to us by Marie Curie (and a reminder by Zombie Marie Curie):