She is the epitome of true grit, all packaged in a gentle feminine form. A scientist par excellence, a double Nobel Prize winner, a pioneer on many fronts and an exemplary human being, Madame Marie Curie showed how much a human can endure and still succeed! Today is her birthday and Google duly honours her with a doodle.
The doodle is a simple image of Curie holding up a flask with a fixed chemical apparatus on the table in front of her. Her work, involving the extraction of minute quantities of radium and polonium from uranium ores, must have involved more complicated apparatus setups. Click on the doodle and you’ll be redirected to a page returning the search results to her name. The doodle is a simple one, a humble offering of respect, just like Marie Curie might have wanted to be.
Born in Poland on this day in 1867, she was the fifth and youngest child. Tragedies in her life started early, when she lost her mother at an early age, followed by her elder sister. Jolted twice, she renounced her faith (Catholicism) and became agnostic. Her academic pursuits would take her to Sorbonne; there she would obtain a degree in math. She would also start working with magnetism, which would eventually prove a great source of attraction between her (then Marie Sklodowska) and her future husband Pierre Curie.
The Physics and Chemistry that she did
The physics world was rocked by the discovery of unknown rays given off by certain substances in the late 1890’s. It was Becquerel’s seminal discovery of radioactivity that set Marie and Pierre on a hunt for a new element radium! Nothing was known about radioactivity not even the harm that it does.
From a ton of pitch blende (Uranium dioxide – ore from which Uranium is extracted), less than one-tenth of a gram of radium chloride was extracted. This was 1898. Polonium, discovered by the Curies in the previous year, was easier to extract. Both were much more radioactive than Uranium. Madame Curie wrote a characteristically tepid sentence, which was immensely insightful:
The fact is very remarkable, and leads to the belief that these minerals may contain an element which is much more active than uranium.
Becquerel was her doctoral advisor; she obtained her DSc from the University of Paris in 1903. In the same year, she received her first Nobel Prize – in Physics and with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel.
Her struggle restarted in 1906 with the death of her husband. She continued her work, but failed to get a position at the University of Paris, just because women were disallowed from such a position. She was, however, received with honour at Sorbonne, the first woman to hold the post of a professor.
She was attacked by her detractors and there were many when news about her alleged affair with Paul Langevin surfaced in 1910-11. In 1911, she received her second Nobel Prize this time in Chemistry and alone!
She would die in 1936 due to the very radiation that made her a celebrity. She campaigned widely for more funding for radium research. She founded the Curie Institute, which produced more Nobel Laureates, including her daughter Irene Joliet-Curie and son-in law Frederic Joliot-Curie.
Madame Marie Curie is a symbol today, a reminder that science is not merely a great idea occurring inside the head of a genius. It’s a body of knowledge, requiring immense dedication, sometimes even courage, to acquire.
Madame Marie Curie, on your birthday, we salute you!