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Heroes of Science: Marie Curie

by Laurisa White Reyes

"Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood." - Marie Curie

We all know how much kids love science. That love will motivate some kids to become scientists one day, making science their livelihood. That's why I believe it is just as important to teach our children about the great minds behind science as it is to teach kids about science itself. If you take a look at the life of any great scientist you will find a child fascinated with the stars, or the sea, or the earth. Children are natural scientists because they asks questions about everything around them. And that's what scientists do. They observe something in nature that seems unusual or fascinating and they ask questions. And what makes them scientists is that after they've asked the question, they doggedly pursue the answer until they have found it.

Marie Curie was one such person. Madam Curie said, "A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician: he is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales."

Marie Curie was born in Warsaw, Poland on November 7, 1867. Her father, Wladyslaw Sklodowki was a professor of mathematics and physics. From the time she was a young girl, Marie showed exceptional abilities in the areas of math and science. At 16 , she earned a gold medal upon completing her secondary education at the Russian lysee. At 18, she began working as a governess using her income to finance her elder sister Bronia's education in Paris with the understanding that Bronia would later assist Marie.

In 1891 Maria Sklodowska went to Paris and studied Physics at the Sorbonne. She met Pierre Curie in 1894 and they married in 1895. Together they created an unparalleled team in the field of scientific research.

Several years earlier, a scientist by the name of Henri Becquerel discovered that the element, Uranium, emitted unusual levels of energy and that these radioactive rays could penetrate solid objects and leave an impression on photographic plates. He developed the term "x-ray", "x" meaning the unknown.

Marie and Pierre wanted to know if Uranium was the only substance that gave off these rays. They found that a certain Uranium-containing mineral called pitchblende emitted a much higher level of radiation than the Uranium they extracted from it suggesting that there was at least one additional radioactive element within the compound. In fact, there were two.

In 1898 the Curie's discovered the existence of Polonium (named for Marie's homeland) and Radium. The unique qualities of these two new elements were such that they were 60 and 900 times, respectively, more radioactive than Uranium.

Marie's next goal was to obtain pure Radium. It took three years, one ton of pitchblende, and thousand of hours of intense labor to collect a mere one eighth of a gram of Radium. My favorite part in her biography was the moment when after all the work was over Marie and Pierre applied one last chemical process to the very remaining amounts material in order to separate it from the pure radium they were attempting to collect. When the process was complete, they looked in their bowls expecting to find some small quantity of this precious metal. But their bowls were all empty. They were so discouraged that they left their instruments where they stood and went home. Late in the evening they determined that they would try again. Perhaps another three years or another ton of pitchblende would at last bring them to their goal. It was very dark outside when they walked into their little shed at the Sorbonne. As they entered they saw a glorious illumination lighting the room. Their precious radium, so small in amount that it could not be seen by the naked eye by day, was radiating light. You can only imagine the thrill they must have felt at that moment of discovery. On these results, in 1903 Marie Curie received her doctorate of science, the first woman in Europe to do so. Also in 1903, Pierre and Marie were awarded the Nobel Prize, shared with Becquerel, for the discovery of radioactivity, making Marie the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize in Physics. In 1904 Marie was appointed chief assistant in the laboratory directed by her husband.

On April 19, 1906 tragedy struck. While walking home on a rainy evening, Pierre fell beneath the wheel of a carriage and was killed. He left Marie and two young daughters to carry on without him. Though the event was devastating to Marie, it proved a turning point for her career. The following month, she was appointed the professorship which had been left vacant by her husband's death becoming the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne. In 1911 she was again awarded the Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry for the isolation of pure Radium, and became the first person to ever receive two Nobel Prizes.

By 1914, she saw the completion of the building of The Radium Institute at the University of Paris. Shortly thereafter, World War I came to France. With the help of her daughter, Irene, Marie devoted herself to the development of the use of x-radiography, or x-rays, for medical research. It was here that Marie saw her opportunity to best serve her adopted country. Though she herself had little experience in operating them, she managed to gain the government's support of her idea to send transportable x-ray machines to aid in the treatment of wounded soldiers. She succeeded in aquiring 20 trucks for the Red Cross, each with its own machine, and led them out to the battlefront. Though she and Irene saved hundreds of lives with their "Petite Curies," they themselves were unprotected from the radiation, the overexposure to which proved eventually fatal for Marie.

In 1921, Marie and her daughters journeyed to the United States where President Harding presented her with a gram of radium purchased as the result of a collection among American Women. Later she was made a member of the International Commission on Intellectual Co-operation by the Council of the League of Nations, and, in 1932, she saw the Curie Foundation in Paris develop and inaugurate the Radium Institute in Warsaw, to which her sister, Bronia, became director.

Marie died on July 4, 1934 of leukemia, the result of her exposure to the radium that made her famous. She was a woman of many accomplishments and honors, the last of which was given in 1995 when she became the first woman to have her ashes enshrined in the Pantheon in Paris.

Marie's daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, went on to win her own Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935. Her other daughter, Eve, wrote and published a beautiful biography of her mother.

Radiography has become an integral part of medical research and treatment. Without Marie's discoveries, we would not be able to x-ray broken bones, perform flouroscopies (using phosphorescent substances to locate problem areas within the body), or provide treatment for cancer and other diseases. Her observations, her questions and then her answers, have literally transformed the world we live in and have opened our eyes to the previously unknown. In her paper "Radium and Radioactivity" in which she describes in detail the properties and use of radioactive substances, Marie says "It is human nature to believe that the phenomena we know are the only ones that exist, and whenever some chance discovery extends the limits of our knowledge we are filled with amazement. We cannot become accustomed to the idea that we live in a world that is revealed to us only in a restricted portion of its manifestations."

Her vision is shared by thousands of others who continually reach beyond the visible, tangible world we know and understand. It is this vision that led man to walk on the Moon, to create telephones and light bulbs, to build submarines and airplanes, to create information highways on the internet. When I crawl in bed at night with my kids and snuggle up to read them a bedtime story I often wonder what great things still await discovery. Will my four year old son, so full of questions about everything around him, one day grow up to discover the cure to diabetes? Or will my daughter, with her fascination with mixing concoctions of all sorts, someday revolutionize the world with some new compound the way rubber or Teflon or polyester has for this generation? We cannot know what lies in store for our children. But if we can show them that others have gone before them, they will be less intimidated to follow the same path. Like my mother has always said, "If someone else has done it, I can learn to do it, too." And that's exactly why the story of Marie Curie has such a special place in my heart. There are dozens of websites and books about Marie Curie. The best biography of her is the one written by her daughter, Eve Curie, possibly out of print but available at the library. A very thorough website is www.aip.org/history/curie/contents.htm. Here you will find not only a detailed biography, but also copies of her published papers and a history of radiology.

Copyright © 2006 Modern Media