100 Years ago in Nuclear Science


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From Scientific American, November 25, 1911, Volume 105

FEMINISM very nearly won a great victory in the French Academy of Sciences on January 23rd, 1911, when, in the election of a successor to the deceased academician Gernez, Marie Sklodowska Curie was defeated by two votes. At a joint meeting of the five academies which compose the Institut de France, a majority had opposed the admission of women, as contrary to tradition, but each academy was left to decide the question for itself.

The Academy of Fine Arts had a few women members long ago but the Academy of Sciences has never admitted a woman. It was, perhaps, the opposition of the anti-feminists that induced Mme. Curie to apply as a candidate for the chair in the section of physics left vacant by Gernez, and formerly occupied by her husband and collaborator, Pierre Curie. In the preliminary grading of candidates Mme. Curie was placed alone, in the first grade, while her competitors, five eminent men of science, were assigned to the second grade. Mme. Curie, however, received only 28 of the 65 votes (the Academy consists of 66 members), while 30 votes were cast for Edouard Branly. There were good reasons for this choice, entirely apart from considerations of sex. Branly is a physicist of world-wide celebrity who, unlike Mme. Curie, has received few honors and emoluments. He invented the coherer for the detection of electric waves and to him Marconi’s first wireless message was addressed. Many of the academicians naturally desired to recognize the very important part played by their compatriot in the development of wireless telegraphy. Moreover, Branly is sixty-four years old and this was his third candidacy, while Mme. Curie is only forty-three and had never before applied for admission. It is not customary to admit a candidate on the first application, and Mme. Curie’s chance of living until the next vacancy shall occur is greater than Branly’s.

Who is this remarkable woman who so nearly surmounted these formidable obstacles? The dry and formal account of herself and her work which she submitted with her application, according to custom, is perhaps more eloquent than an exhaustive biography. Marie Sklodowska was born in Warsaw November 7th, 1867. She became a student in the University of Paris where she attained the degrees of licentiate in physics in 1893 and licentiate in mathematics in 1894. In 1896 she received a certificate of fitness for the secondary instruction of girls, and in 1900 became lecturer in physics in the Ecole normale superieure for girls in Sevres. In 1903 she received the degree of doctor of physical science, in 1906 she became lecturer in general physics in the University of Paris, and in 1909 s he was promoted to the professorship of general physics, as successor to her lately deceased husband, Prof. Pierre Curie, to whom she was married in 1895.

She is an honorary or foreign member of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the London Chemical Society, the American Philosophical Society, the American Chemical Society, the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, the Royal Swedish Academy and other learned bodies, and has received the honorary title of Doctor from the universities of Geneva and Edinburgh. In 1898 Mme. Curie, then thirty-one years of age, received the Gegner prize from the French Academy of Sciences, nominally for her extensive researches relating to the magnetic properties of iron and steel, although the report of the awarding committee also alludes, in terms of the highest commendation, to the researches in radio-activity which she had already begun, in co-operation with her husband, and to their recent discovery of the radio-active element which Mme. Curie named Polonium, in honor of her native country.

The Gegner prize was awarded to Mme. Curie again in 1900, and a third time in 1902, together with the Berthelot medal. In 1903 the Nobel prize for physical science was awarded, half to Mons. and Mme. Curie and half to Henri Becquerel, whose discovery of the spontaneous radio-activity of uranium ore formed the basis of all subsequent researches in radio-activity. Only a few days ago we heard the news that Mme. Curie has been honored with the Nobel prize a second time, on this occasion in the division of chemistry. The list of medals and prizes which have been awarded to Mme. Curie in foreign countries is too long to quote.

In addition to the numerous researches in radioactivity which she made in collaboration with her husband, Mme. Curie has published a great many independent papers, and a volume, “Investigations of Radio-active Substances,”; in which the results of their co-operative researches, including the epoch-making discovery of radium, are set forth.

Radium and polonium are not the only fruits of this ideal marriage, which was blessed by the birth of two children who already give evidence of inheriting the genius of their parents. After the shocking and untimely death of Pierre Curie, who was killed by a truck on a Paris bridge, in 1906, at the age of fifty-seven, a large majority of his colleagues recommended to the ministry of public instruction the appointment of his widow and coadjutor as his successor. The result is that this gifted woman, the only one of her sex who has ever received this high honor, is now a full professor in the venerable Sorbonne.

All who have seen Mme. Curie at work in her laboratory, or have listened to her lectures, have been impressed by her undemonstrative zeal, her abstraction from external disturbances and her aversion to sensational effects.

The early life of Marie Sklodowska Curie is less well-known to the general public than the later phase, in which she has become famous. And yet there is a peculiar romantic, and indeed pathetic interest attached to the incidents of her youth. Her father was a distinguished physicist, and professor of chemistry at Warsaw, Poland. Her mother died when the child was yet quite young. Marie grew up in her father’s laboratory, imbibing the spirit of scientific research, and acquiring that sureness of eye and skill of hand which is so indispensable to the worker in experimental science. It is no doubt largely to her very early initiation into the technique of laboratory work that her extraordinary ability in this direction must be ascribed. Marie’s apprenticeship was, however, brought to a rather early close by the pressure of necessity. As the daughter of an impecunious college professor, the eighteen-year-old girl set out to earn her own living as governess to the daughters of a Russian nobleman. But Providence had destined her for another fate. In one of those agitations which have been so common in the history of Russia, a patriotic society of students at Warsaw was brought under the scrutiny of the ever-suspicious government, and for fear of being compelled to testify against some of her father’s pupils, Marie migrated from her home country and took up her abode in Paris. There she lived for a time a life of the utmost privation. Her repeated efforts to obtain employment in one of the laboratories seemed to avail her nothing. Finally she was allowed to perform some of the trivial offices in connection with the preparation of laboratory experiments. And once this meager foothold was gained, it was but a matter of days before the extraordinary faculties of the new assistant had attracted the attention and caused the amazement of the head of the department, Prof. Lippmann. The eminent scientist befriended the girl, and incidentally also introduced her to one of his most promising pupils, Pierre Curie, with whom she became associated in research, and later, in the bonds of wedlock. It was she who fanned to new endeavor the fagging spirits of her husband, in those moments of discouragement which are apt to come to all engaged in intense scientific research. And together they gained the undying trophies of fame, when, with the isolation of radium salts, the name of Curie suddenly rose to international renown. And then, not many years later, fell that terrible blow, separating the two who together had faced the hardships of everyday life, and in strangely perfect union had toiled, against much discouragement, to reap the precious harvest of scientific research. While crossing the street Prof.. Curie tripped and fell, and was instantly killed by a passing truck. Thus in an evil hour France was bereft of one of her greatest physicists, the world of a genius, and Madame Curie If her life companion and husband. Her composure, upon receiving the terrible news, is commented upon by the Gaulois: “Nothing could have been more characteristic of the wonderful Madame Curie, than the coolness with which she received the news of her bereavement. There were no tears, no traces of grief. Over and over she repeated : ‘Pierre is dead.’’’ One fee1s that here perhaps the Frenchman, with his demonstrative temperament, somewhat misjudges this great woman. The deepest emotions are not always those that can find their vent through the common channels of physical expression. To us there seems something infinitely pathetic in the monotonous repetition of that simple and sad formula, as the mind that with the insight of a genius has successfully grappled with some of the most abstruse problems presented to the science of to-day in the realm of inanimate matter, is brought face to face with the great problem of life and death. Here all men are on a level, and impartially fate has dealt to this great genius as to us all life’s share of human sorrow. Yet with unbroken spirit, and with renewed devotion she turns to continue now in loneliness, her great life work, her priceless gift to humanity.

One can not help reflecting on the retribution dealt by fate to the Eastern monarchy-that makes life unendurable to the scholar of independent thought-in taking from her the woman who would have added the brightest laurel to Russia’s wreath of scientific  attainment.

Editor's note:  This article comes from the Scientific American archives.  SA has always been a quality magazine and recently has made a graceful step into being an online source.  Rather than the clumsy moves by other printed sources they have tried to augment their printed form with the online material, which is far reaching.

See www.scientificamerican.com


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