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Pierre And Marie Curie


Marie and Pierre Curie’s pioneer research was again brought to mind when      on 20 April last year, their bodies were taken from their place of burial at Sceaux,      just outside Paris, and in a solemn ceremony were laid to rest under the mighty      dome of the Pantheon. Marie Curie thus became the first woman to be accorded      this mark of honor on her own merit. One woman, Sophie Berthelot, admittedly      already rested there but in the capacity of wife of the chemist Marcelin Berthelot      (1827-1907).

It was Francois Mitterrand who, before ending his fourteen-year-long      presidency, took this initiative, as he said ‘in order to respect the equality of women      and men before the law and in reality’ (‘pour respecter enfin….l’egalite des femmes      et des hommes dans le droit comme dans les faits’). In point of fact – as the press      pointed out – this initiative was symbolic three times over. Marie Curie was a      woman, she was an immigrant and she had to a high degree helped increase the      prestige of France in the scientific world.

At the end of the 19th century, a number of discoveries were made in physics      which paved the way for the breakthrough of modern physics and led to the      revolutionary technical development that is continually changing our daily lives.

Around 1886, Heinrich Hertz demonstrated experimentally the existence of      radio waves. It is said that Hertz only smiled incredulously when anyone predicted      that his waves would one day be sent round the earth. Hertz died in 1894 at the      early age of 37. In September 1895, Guglielmo Marconi sent the first radio signal      over a distance of 1.5 km. In 1901 he spanned the Atlantic. Hertz did not live long      enough to experience the far-reaching positive effects of his great discovery, nor of      course did he have to see it abused in bad television programs. It is hard to predict      the consequences of new discoveries in physics.

On 8 November 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen at the University of      Wrzburg, discovered a new kind of radiation which he called X-rays. It could in      time be identified as the short-wave, high frequency counterpart of Hertz’s waves.      The ability of the radiation to pass through opaque material that was impenetrable      to ordinary light, naturally created a great sensation. Rontgen himself wrote to a      friend that initially, he told no one except his wife about what he was doing. People      would say, ‘Rontgen is out of his mind’. On 1 January 1896, he mailed his first      announcement of the discovery to his colleagues.’ ….und nun ging der Teufel los’      (‘and now the Devil was let loose’) he wrote. His discovery very soon made an      impact on practical medicine. In physics it led to a chain of new and sensational      findings. When Henri Becquerel was exposing salts of uranium to sunlight to study      whether the new radiation could have a connection with luminescence, he found      out by chance – thanks to a few days of cloudy weather – that another new type of      radiation was being spontaneously emanated without the salts of uranium having to      be illuminated – a radiation that could pass through metal foil and darken a      photographic plate. The two researchers who were to play a major role in the      continued study of this new radiation were Marie and Pierre Curie.

Marie Sklodowska, as she was called before marriage, was born in Warsaw in      1867. Both her parents were teachers who believed deeply in the importance of      education. Marie had her first lessons in physics     and chemistry from her      father. She had a brilliant aptitude for study and a great thirst for knowledge;      however, advanced study was not possible for women in Poland. Marie dreamed of      being able to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, but this was beyond the means of      her family. To solve the problem, Marie and her elder sister, Bronya, came to an      arrangement: Marie should go to work as a governess and help her sister with the      money she managed to save so that Bronya could study medicine at the Sorbonne.      When Bronya had taken her degree she, in her turn, would contribute to the cost of      Marie’s studies.

So it was not until she was 24 that Marie came to Paris to study mathematics      and physics. Bronya was now married to a doctor of Polish origin, and it was at      Bronya’s urgent invitation to come and live with them that Marie took the step of      leaving for Paris. By then she had been away from her studies for six years, nor had      she had any training in understanding rapidly spoken French. But her keen interest      in studying and her joy at being at the Sorbonne with all its opportunities helped      her surmount all difficulties. To save herself a two-hours’ journey, she rented a little      attic in the Quartier Latin. There the cold was so intense that at night she had to      pile on everything she had in the way of clothing so as to be able to sleep. But as      compensation for all her privations she had total freedom to be able to devote      herself wholly to her studies. ‘It was like a new world opened to me, the world of      science, which I was at last permitted to know in all liberty’, she writes. And it was      France’s leading mathematicians and physicists whom she was able to go to hear,      eople with names we now encounter in the history of science: Marcel Brillouin,      Paul Painleve, Gabriel Lippmann, and Paul Appell. After two years, when she took      her degree in physics in 1893, she headed the list of candidates and, in the      following year, she came second in a degree in mathematics. After three years she      had brilliantly passed examinations in physics and mathematics. Her goal was      to take a teacher’s diploma and then to return to Poland.

Now, however, there occurred an event that was to be of decisive importance      in her life. She met Pierre Curie. He was 35 years, eight years older, and an      internationally known physicist, but an outsider in the French scientific community      – a serious idealist and dreamer whose greatest wish was to be able to devote his      life to scientific work. He was completely indifferent to outward distinctions and a      career. He earned a living as the head of a laboratory at the School of Industrial      Physics and Chemistry where engineeers were trained and he lived for his research      into crystals and into the magnetic properties of bodies at different temperatures.      He had not attended one of the French elite schools but had been taught by his      father, who was a physician, and by a private teacher. He passed his baccalaureat at      the early age of 16 and at 21, with his brother Jacques, he had discovered      piezoelectricity, which means that a      difference in electrical potential is seen      when mechanical stresses are applied on certain crystals, including quartz. Such      crystals are now used in microphones, electronic apparatus and clocks.

Marie, too, was an idealist; though outwardly shy and retiring, she was in      reality energetic and single-minded. Pierre and Marie immediately discovered an      intellectual affinity, which was very soon      transformed into deeper feelings. In July      1895, they were married at the town hall at Sceaux, where Pierre’s parents lived.      They were given money as a wedding present which they used to buy a bicycle for      each of them, and long, sometimes adventurous, cycle rides came to become their      way of relaxing. Their life was otherwise quietly monotonous, a life filled with      work and study.

Persuaded by his father and by Marie, Pierre submitted his doctoral thesis in      1895. It concerned various types of magnetism, and contained a presentation of the      connection between temperature and magnetism that is now known as Curie’s Law.      In 1896, Marie passed her teacher’s diploma, coming first in her group. Their      daughter Irene was born in September 1897. Pierre had managed to arrange that      Marie should be allowed to work in the school’s laboratory, and in 1897, she      concluded a number of investigations into the magnetic properties of steel on      behalf of an industrial association. Deciding after a time to go on doing research,      Marie looked around for a subject for a doctoral thesis.

Becquerel’s discovery had not aroused very much attention. When, just a day      or so after his discovery, he informed the Monday meeting of l’Academie des      Sciences, his colleagues listened politely, then went on to the next item on the      agenda. It was Rontgen’s discovery and the possibilities it provided that were the      focus of the interest and enthusiasm of researchers. Becquerel himself made certain      important observations, for instance that gases through which the rays passed      become able to conduct electricity, but he was soon to leave this field. Marie      decided to make a systematic investigation of the mysterious ‘uranium rays’. She      had an excellent aid at her isposal – an electrometer for the measurement of weak      electrical currents, which was constructed by Pierre and his brother, and was based      on the piezoelectric effect.

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