Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Google Doodle, Marie Curie's 144th Birthday

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).   
That fact gets her into the pantheon, but what makes her special is that she is a woman...a woman who entered a man's world, won a man's most prestigious prize, not once but twice, and she is the first of two to have won multiple Nobels in different fields, and the only person in the world who has won Nobels in two different sciences.  Oh well, you know women have come a long way with feminism.  What's the big deal?  The big deal is that she didn't do this in the enlightened 1990s or 2000s.  She won her first Nobel in 1903 and the second in 1911.  American women did not have the right to vote until 1920.  Nor could they vote in Curie's adopted country of France until 1944. Marie Curie provides for me a cautionary tale for all of mankind but especially men.  We ignore the extraordinary gifts of women at a vast cost and perhaps peril to humanity.

The Curies working in their laboratory. 
Ironically Curie's scientific career and achievements were steered by three factors, relative poverty, lack of opportunity for women, and love.  She agreed to work and help pay for her sister's education at Sorbonne at Paris.  She took the position of a governess for various families, one being a distant relative of her father's.  She fell in love one of the elder sons of this family but they rejected her as a suitable wife for their son.  This led her to Paris where she lived  with her sister and obtained degrees in both physics and mathematics at the Sorbonne, tutoring in the evenings to pay for her tuition.

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
In 1903 Marie & Pierre Curie and Becquerel were awarded the Nobel prize for their work in radioactivity.  The Sorbonne offer Pierre Curie a professorship and a laboratory and Marie became the director of research.   Tragically Pierre was killed by a horse drawn cart in 1906.  Although Marie was crushed with grief with the loss of her beloved husband the Sorbonne turned Pierre's position and laboratory over to Marie.  She became the first woman professor at the Sorbonne.  Despite her fame, her obvious scientific abilities, and having won two Nobels she was denied entry into the French Academy of Sciences,  again due to her gender.  Her daughter, also a Nobel prize winner would be denied membership as well in the future.

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?

Solvay Conference 1927. Marie Curie (seated 3rd from the left)
is still alone in a man's world.  Wow! No girls except Marie,
but what a collection of intellectual horsepower!  To the left of
Marie, Max Planck.  One seat to the right is Big Al.  Middle
row, to the left of Big Al is Paul Dirac.  On the far right of the
second row, Niels Bohr and Max Born. Top row directly above
Big Al is Erwin Schrodinger of the cat fame.  One guy over
to the right is Wolfgang Pauli and Werner Heisenberg who
is uncertain about all this. What a beer blast I could have
with this crowd.  BTW Richard Feynman, who would be 9 at
the time, was not invited.  The neutron was not invited either, it
was just a theory bouncing around in some of those heads.  

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

Image Credits:

Google Doodle: Google

All Other Images:  Wikipedia, Marie Curie 


  1. Two lovers eh? She really isn't very pretty is she? Either that or the photos don't do her justice..must be the photos.

    Good piece about Currie. I thought you said you weren't doing anymore of those ?

  2. Busman,

    Are you blind? She is a very beautiful woman. Where the hell is you imagination? These are early 20th century photos. Everybody put on funeral faces for photos. Put smile on her face, drop her hair, and voila a lovely woman with brains. Very sexy!

  3. Well actually,,,,I was just thinking....that photo thing could work in reverse as well.....maybe that photo is making her look better than she really is.....think about that !!! Scary............

  4. Sorry Sextant, not trying to belittle your blog about Currie.
    As I said before..good write up.
    I'm too much a surface thinker. (shallow). My bad.

  5. Busman,

    You just know that you could take a far better photo of her with that new Nikon D7000. Alas, if you only had a time machine.

  6. my pictures, she'd be a pinup girl.....nuff said.

  7. Excellent read. Thank you very much. Hope you don't mind if I share.

  8. Raven, thanks for the kind comment. Please do share it. Readers are always welcome, thanks for stopping by.

  9. You're becoming one of my favorite feminists, Sextant. Love this piece on Marie Curie. I'm learning so much from your blog. I can just imaging Big Al sticking up for Marie. What a mensch. And I agree with you. She must have been beautiful. Too bad she wasn't really Jewish, though. My tribe, I'm sure, would have loved to claim her.

  10. Donna
    I thought you might like this one. I am thinking of doing one on Lise Meitner. She is in the tribe. Interesting character. Read about her on wikipedia.

    I should do a couple on some Irishers as well. Ahhhhh. We are too damned dumb for physics. I think I would like to do a post on Mary Robinson and Hazel Lavery.

    But you know what, we are all in the same damned tribe. The sooner we come to realize that the better off we will be. Thanks for stopping by, a delight as always.

  11. Marie Curie has fascinated me for years. Yes, you are a feminist as was my father. My father would come back from a cocktail party raving about a woman he'd met. He'd mention her name, and Mother and I would remember her. Often she was uglier than sin, but she'd have a Ph.D. in something or other and would besides know a thing or two about art, politics, dogs, baseball. You name it. I got spoiled.

    I also read your lengthy comment on Women Without Tangible Filters. Cas, one of the three, and her husband have been friends for over 20 years. You'll see her picture on my blog. Also, one of your regular readers is a friend of mine from Canada. She learned about your blog from me and has no idea where she learned about the blog of the Tucson three. I was just getting ready to write down on my blob trhe blogs I follow regularly.

    And now, lets see if this comment will get posted. Old Baguette or NanookMN (I'm having an identity crisis.)

  12. No, Cas and her husband and I have been friends for over twenty years. Old Baguette

  13. I wrote a part 2 myself this time. I was told it was published. Do I see it? I do not. Find that convention of computer scientists for me, and I will help them understand the frustrations of the inept. If they can understand English, that is. BTW LOL URL OMG Link Browser See, I can swear, too. They're not the only ones who're intelligent.
    The Old Baguette or NanookMN

  14. This was an excellent post Sextant. The minute I saw the Google Doodle I thought of you. You really should continue doing them.

    I didn't know all of this about Marie Curie. Definitely it must have been difficult to achieve all that she did being a woman. When you question what would have become of her if this or that had not happened I have to think that she would have excelled regardless!

    My favorite part: "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?" Just brilliant Sextant!

  15. Old Baguette or whoever the hell you are.

    To be placed in even the remotest similarity to your father is indeed an honor to me. Thank you, sort of blue collar slob's nobel prize. Your father was truly a man of the Renascence (not implying that you are that old, just a figure of speech) and I consider it a loss to have never met him...another beer in heaven, and of course we have to get several in your mother as well. I want to hear some of those juicy stories regarding the conception of the Old Baguette!

    I found Cas through the picture on your blog and went to their blog. My oh my what three talented ladies they are. Very good writing, from the heart. What a good blog should be. So thanks for unwittingly pointing me in their direction.

    I used to have a reader from the Atlantic Provinces from Canada, that I always associated with you. She (I assume) used to check daily. Unfortunately I lost her last spring. She never commented but I watched her daily visits from the very far eastern shores every day on Stat Counter. I considered her an unknown friend and have missed her daily peek.

  16. Alicia,
    Thank you for the very kind comment. Indeed Marie would have excelled no matter where she went. But you can be the best driver at the Bakersfield Dragstrip, or you can win the Indianapolis 500. Either way you are the best, you are very talented, but the import of being in the right place at the right time can not be underestimated. Marie may have been the finest physics professor that the University of Krakow ever had, but would she have discovered two elements and won two nobels. Chuang Tzu said "You cannot speak of ocean to a frog living in a well". Thank again for your very kind comment.

  17. You do write a nice history! Too bad text books aren't as interesting!

  18. Kathy, Thanks, but mostly it is wikipedia regurgitated with some personal insights thrown in. I don't have maintain intellectual accuracy. What you read here is bullshit highly filtered through my mind. Regard it as entertainment.

    Thanks for the kind comment.