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Madame Curie - A biography by Eve Curie

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A brilliant scientist, a list of prizes and honorary titles follow her name… but who was Marie Curie as a person?

In December 2019, while strolling with no direction in downtown Warsaw, I found myself next to a house with a big metal plate announcing “Museum of Maria Skłodowska-Curie”.

The experience in the museum felt very personal, it was small and cosy, filled with equipment but also with personal belongings of the scientist. While walking through the house where Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born, I realised everything I knew about her was related to her discoveries, but who was Maria Skłodowska-Curie as a person? In the museum’s gift shop, I stumbled upon her biography which was written by the youngest of her daughters; and there I got my answer. In this book, Eve Curie beautifully describes the story of a life driven by vocation.

The book, “Madame Curie. A biography by Eve Curie”, is truly an incredible journey through the life of the scientist. This biography is the fine product of years of research by Eve Curie.  She collected letters and anecdotes of Marie Curie’s youth and the last years from her Polish family, personal notes of the scientist, close friends, and of course, her own memories of a daily life with her mother. Eve Curie made very clear the authenticity of her story: “I have not related a single anecdote of which I am not sure. The facts are stated. The quoted words were actually pronounced.”

After reading this book, my admiration for Marie Curie expanded to a personal level. Besides being a remarkable scientist, she was also an exceptional human being. As I was reading, I wondered: Have I ever met a person with such a strong vocation like Marie Curie? Her powerful vocation led her to live by perpetually giving to science. Marie Curie rejected everything that comes with fame; she was indifferent about money, comfort, and all ‘advantages' that other recognized men accepted at that time. For her, fame was a box full of distractions; distractions that she identified as unnecessary, like anything else that would take her time away from her laboratory. Einstein said: "Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only whom fame has not corrupted". Everything that society was expecting from the acclaimed scientist at the peak of her career, was like a curse for her.

In the book we learn that Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born in Warsaw in 1867, to an oppressed nation. Poland was at that time under Russian occupation, which made her upbringing challenging. Many of these early anecdotes take us by the hand on the development of Maria’s personality. We then read about her life in Paris where she started her scientific career under the French version of her name, “Marie”. In Paris, she met Pierre Curie, who had a tremendous influence on her life as a scientist and later as her husband. While in Paris, Marie Curie decided to pursue a Doctoral degree at a time when the scientist Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium salts spontaneously emitted some “rays” of unknown nature. She was deeply intrigued by this phenomena and decided to study it during her doctoral studies. She later named the phenomena as radioactivity.

Marie expressed that it would be contrary to the scientific spirit to put a price on the scientific knowledge that they generated and which could save lives.

In this book, the process of this discovery unfolds in a thrilling and accessible manner. While trying to understand radioactivity, the Curies (Marie and Pierre) discovered the radioactive elements: Radium and Polonium. As Radium was studied more and more, more applications were found for it, such as in treatment against tumours. These discoveries transformed the extraction of Radium into an economically lucrative process. When Marie and Pierre were faced with the option of filing for a patent on the technique to extract Radium, they decided to share their protocols without reserve. Marie expressed that it would be contrary to the scientific spirit to put a price on the scientific knowledge that they generated and which could save lives.

This biography is as inspiring as it can be and Marie Curie was an exceptional human being. She made sure to never let the idea of wealth distract her to let greed take over. Beyond the detailed description of Marie’s life as a scientist, this book also provides a rich description of her upbringing, her family, the situation of Poland under the Tsarism, her life as wife and mother, and her years in the countryside, all of which shaped the course of her life and made her who she was.

 

Written by Karla Blöcher-Juárez; Edited by John J Fung. Featured Image: NGC/Karla Blöcher-Juárez.

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