|Marie Curie's 144th Birthday|
I promised myself that I would get out of the business of blogging about Google Doodles. I did one last summer that involved downloading 15 different Doodles for a British children's author that I never heard of and I have no idea who he is now. That killed me for the Doodles, but today's Doodle is devoted to Marie Curie who holds a special place in the pantheon of people that I intend to have a beer with in the sinners quarter of heaven. So what is so special about Marie Curie? Well she was a damn good scientist and among other things she discovered two elements.
|Marie Curie in the world of men (seated second from right).|
The first Solvay Conferencein 1911.
Yes, that's big Al Einstein (standing second from the right).
|The Curies working in their laboratory.|
After she graduated she began researching the magnetic properties of steel. She met Pierre Curie and their working relationship blossomed into a romance. However she returned to her native Poland where she sought a position at the University of Krakow. It was denied due to her gender. She returned to Paris and married Curie. Together they worked with Henry Becquerel on various studies into radioactivity and radioactive elements. The Curies discovered the elements polonium and radium.
|Curie in 1911|
Love strikes again, but this time in a more sordid fashion. Curie had an affair with Paul Langevin, a fellow physicist who was estranged but not divorced from his wife. Langevin's wife notified the press of the affair immediately after the announcement of Curie's second Nobel. The press went berserk with the story. Curie was labeled a home wrecker, a suspicious foreigner, and falsely a Jew. Some members of the Nobel committee pleaded with Curie to not accept the prize in Sweden. The notions of the King dining with and accused adulteress was scandalous. Well none other than big Al Einstein, who was indeed Jewish, told Curie to go claim her prize:
"I am convinced that you [should] continue to hold this riffraff in contempt...if the rabble continues to be occupied with you, simply stop reading that drivel. Leave it to the vipers it was fabricated for."Marie herself stated:
"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 ... that the appreciation of the value of scientific work should be influenced by libel and slander concerning private life."
|Marie Curie, 1920|
She went to Sweden had dinner with the King and brought home the prize. The King survived the ordeal to later have his own affair with a married man brought to light. Ahhhhh, a strange world we live in.
Marie Curie worked until the end of her life with radiation and radium and she ended up giving her life to her work. Unknown at the time, continuous exposure to moderate amounts of ionizing radiation can seriously degrade one's health. Marie Curie died in 1934 of aplastic anemia due to the radiation's effect on her bone marrow.
I would like to consider for a moment some of the influences on Curie's life and career. Her family had lost property holdings in Poland's various uprisings. As such she grew up in relative poverty. She could not simply afford to obtain an advanced education. What if she had given up? What if she did not have the curiosity and drive to pursue her education under the hardship of her studies during the day and tutoring at night to pay for her tuition? What if she had married her first love, the distant relative to her father? Would have he had the insight to know what a special woman Marie was? Would he have allowed her to get an education, and work in a man's world? So in the long run was it a good or bad thing that his family rejected Marie?
Marie's education and work in Paris leading to her marriage to Pierre Curie was indeed fortuitous. Pierre, obviously loved his wife as a woman yet also admired and respected her as a scientist. What a stroke of luck that Pierre recognized her place was in the laboratory. Imagine for a moment, what would have happened to Marie if she had been accepted at the University of Krakow. Would she have been a very good physics professor that lived a quiet life of obscurity? Little did she realize that the University probably did her and the world a favor. Upon her return to Paris she blossomed into a first rate scientist.
Another ironic occurrence was Pierre's untimely and tragic death. She lost her husband and yet again blossomed with his professorship and laboratory. She persevered and created a first rate research center that engendered four more Nobel prizes under her direction. Marie proved herself to be the equal and beyond of her peers.
Let's consider this business with the affair. The French press vilified her. She was accused of being a tramp, a dangerous foreigner, and shamefully called a Jew which was false as she was a lapsed Catholic. The shame in the Jew accusation was two fold. She was accused of being something she was not, and to me a much larger shame was on French society, indeed most if not all of Western society, that being called a Jew would actually mean something derogatory. The French press knew exactly what it was doing with the Jew accusation. It was inflaming the existing antisemitism of Europe and France to build further animosity against her. Yes Curie was an adulteress, but not only was she an adulteress, she was a foreign tramp and a Jew! This lie had three victims. 1) Curie was not a Jew, and the label was being used to denigrate her. 2) People of the Jewish faith and ethnicity certainly had enough of their own problems with the press in Europe. They didn't need false accusations of a lapsed Catholic adulteress thrown in their face. They were completely innocent of anything to do with this affair, yet "Curie is an foreign tramp, a home wrecker and a Jew!" 3) The French citizenry was being lied to by the press and being manipulated to further encourage antisemitism in French society.
So what do we have here? A foreign woman gets a bit big for her skirts, she wins not only one Nobel but two. She has been given her late husband's professorship and laboratory and is running it successfully. She needs knocked down a peg or two. If she had been a man, would there have been any production made about this affair? Would the Nobel committee ask her not to come to Sweden? Would she have been called a Jew? Would Albert Einstein have been called a Jew? Is it so inhuman for a woman who has tragically lost the love of her life to find a romantic interest in another man. He was estranged from his wife but yes the marriage had not been dissolved, and yes that is adultery, and yes it is wrong. But how wrong? Is it really any of our business? Although Langevin divorced his wife, the romance did not survive the intense press coverage and the ugly accusations of French society. Again irony, Curie's fame crushed her happiness.
The irony in Curie's story is heartbreaking. She is steered into great success due to a lack of opportunity for women in her home country. She loses a husband she loves and who loves and respects her and it brings her further success. She is vilified in the French press and used to disparage the innocent people of the Jewish faith. And ultimately her life's work kills her. Quite a story.
The lesson here is obviously Curie is proof that women have the capacity to do great things if given the opportunity. One has to question, how many Marie Curies did the world lose because of misogyny and lack of opportunity for women? How many Albert Einsteins, Richard Feynmans and Lise Meitners has the world lost to antisemitism that ran a course from Jewish quotas at universities to the Holocaust? How many George Washington Carvers, Colin Powells, or Condoleezza Rices have we lost to racism? Is the world so well off that we can afford to lose the talents, abilities, and intelligence of these people just because they are women, or a different race, or ethnic group, or religion? How different would the world have been if women and minorities had been embraced? What have we lost? How different would it be if the brave few who have persevered gave up?
I have read in some of my shall we say dabblings into New Age thought and Gnosticism that there is a notion the men are to learn from women. One of the ways they learn from women is to respect them and treat them as equals. Another way men learn from women is to love them. How simple! Respect and love a woman and she will show you God. What a shame that Judo-Christianity chose to quash that notion.
Links And Credits
Wikipedia, Marie Curie
The Independent, The Secret Sex Life of Marie Curie
NPR Blogs, Krulwich Wonders, Don't Come to Stockholm! Madame Curie's Nobel Scandal
American Institute of Physics, Marie Curie and The Science of Radioactivty
Google Doodle: Google
All Other Images: Wikipedia, Marie Curie