Let’s talk about Zombie Marie Curie. In 2011, this xkcd comic did the rounds of the feminist science community. A woman thinks that, if she applies herself, she could be the next Marie Curie. And, lo, Zombie Curie herself appears, asking to please not be the “one token lady scientist.” I love xkcd, and there’s a lot more to the comic, but it’s Zombie Curie I really want to tell you about, the one woman thrown into a list of “Great Men of Science” to show us ladies that, yes, we can do it if we just believe in ourselves.
Just so we’re all on the same page, Professor Doctor Marie Curie achieved incredible things. She figured out how to accurately measure the strange energy that came from the element uranium, and gave it its name – radioactivity. Working with her husband and lab partner, she discovered two whole new elements – radium and polonium. (Elements are the basic building blocks of nature, like oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. We used to think they couldn’t be broken down into anything smaller, but the science that came about during and after Curie’s time proved that one wrong too.) She won two Nobel Prizes, one to share in Physics, and one in Chemistry on her own. She died in 1934, killed by leukemia bought on by years of working with radiation. That’s the potted biography.
There’s something particularly engrossing in the Great Men of Science idea. We want heroes, pushing back the boundaries of ignorance, endlessly searching for the truth. It’s tough for anyone to carry that sort of reputation, but when you’re the only female scientist in the pantheon, it’s that much tougher. In our stories we leave them alone, stripping away collaborators and family members and expect them to be perfect examples of our basic mythological stories – Newton as the lone genius, Einstein the trickster outsider, and of course Marie Curie, Icarus, destroyed by her own search for knowledge.
In the summer of 1903, we certainly find the young scientist living up to that idea. She has spent her day speaking to standing room only crowd, including her husband and collaborator, her sister, and the class of young women she tutors in physics. In her doctorate, “Resererches sur les substances radioactives” she announces that she has discovered not one, but two new elements, and that the name she came up with for these new elements, “radioactive” has “since been adopted generally.” Seeing her incredible results, her husband M. Curie has put away his work and joined her. The public showing wasn’t a formality – she was asked searching questions, and often resorted to a blackboard to answer them. They call it defending your PhD, a sort of public final exam before you get your doctorate. At the end of this performance, the committee stood up and announced that, not only has she just become the first woman in France to get a PhD, but they believed that her work was “The greatest scientific contribution ever made in a doctoral thesis.” The room erupted with applause.
And now the celebration party is in full swing. In the darkened garden, on a warm summer’s evening in Paris, everything seems perfect. And then the charmed couple of Pierre and Marie Curie bring out one final trick to entertain their guests. A tube of radium salts, coated in zinc sulphide, that glows white in the dark. Ernest Rutherford was at that party, and remembers the light, “brilliant in the darkness… a splendid finale to an unforgettable day.” He also sees, by the light of the glowing tube, that Pierre Curie’s hands are inflamed and shaking – almost certainly due to exposure to the very element he is so proudly demonstrating. Light and dark. Tell me that’s not poetry.
But the story of the Curies does not begin or end in 1903. Dr. Curie’s story could maybe be said to begin in 1867, when she was born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland. By the time she was an adult, she knew she had to leave. Poland was occupied by Russia, at that time Polish universities wouldn’t even accept Poles, let alone women who had already become involved with revolutionary politics. In a scenario that seems ripe for some sort of O Henry tragedy, she made a plan with her older sister. Bronya would leave to study in France, at the Sorbonne, and Maria would work to support her. Once the older sister was established, she would reciprocate, and so both would find their way to a country where women were (slightly) more free to pursue an education.
The plan worked, and Maria arrived at the Sorbonne in 1891. Here she changed her name to the Frenchified Marie. France was always been keen to claim the Curie name when it was suited them, and try to cast her out when not, but I’m sticking with the names she gave herself, for this article. Marie’s name changed again when she married Pierre Curie, in 1985. The next year, she gave birth to a daughter, Irene, and began the work that would make her famous.
For starters, she took on the work of her mentor, Henri Bequerel. Famously, he had discovered that uranium salts were radioactive by leaving them lying on top of some photographic plates, although like everything else in science, the story wasn’t quite as simple as that.
Back then, the world’s only source for uranium was the waste from one particular mine, Joachimsthal, owned by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Called Pitchblende, this stuff looks incredibly boring. It’s not even as jet black and exiting as its name would suggest, it’s just a brownish, lumpy sort of nothing.
Marie classified and measured the amount of radiation she found in these samples, and realized that they gave off more radiation than expected, given the levels of uranium in the rocks. There was something else in there, giving out more radiation. Teaming up with the husband, the Curies combed through tonnes of ore, for years, and developed methods to isolate and refine the tiniest traces of something new. In 1898, Curie was the first person to see and name not one, but two new elements. She called one polonium, after her birth land, and the other radium. This was no sudden discovery, but really hard work, with self designed equipment, and the constant need to call in experts from elsewhere in the school – to measure the traces of radiation in a tiny sample of polonium, for example.
In 1903, the same year of that summer party, radioactivity won the Curies and Bequerel the Nobel Prize. Now, Marie Curie didn’t just exist within a scientific community. She was forced onto the global stage. Radiation was in everything from medicine to nail varnish, and cutting edge theatre performers wore glow in the dark clothes. The Curie’s became celebrities, in a very modern way. In the years to come, photographers chased Marie down the street, and her daughter Irene, a six year old, was quoted in the papers. It was not a happy time, especially after Pierre died in 1906.
I’ve avoided, so far, talking too much about what Curie was like as a person. It feels presumptuous to start talking about a woman who died long before I was even born, throwing around diagnoses as if I had any idea what her experiences were like. It’s also because – well, who cares. No one asks how good a father Niels Bohr was. (I had to double check, but turns out he had six kids! Six! Pretty good going for a guy who looked this hang-dog.)
Still, at the narrative point that we’ve reached, I should tell you that Curie herself claimed she had “no social life”, and that she was certainly not gregarious – keeping her feelings close to her chest, apart from one, disastrous period in 1910. In brief, at the age of 36, Marie Curie fell for a married man – Paul Langevin (pictured), a guest of that garden party seven years ago.
Marie Curie was at a conference in Brussels, with 23 male scientists, when she received two telegrams. One informed her that she had been given a second Nobel Prize, in Chemistry, for her discovery of polonium and radium. The other told her that Jeanne Langevin, Paul’s wife, had leaked the pair’s letters to the press. The situation becomes more awful the more you hear about it, and no one involved comes out of it well. But coming off worse are the reliably xenophobic, sexist and terrible 1910s French establishment. Predictably, the full force of hypocritical society fell on Professor Curie. They bought up her Polish origins, her anti war statements, her Jewishness. (The last was false.) The scandal barred her from election to the most powerful scientific body in France, the Academy of Sciences, and almost lost her that second Nobel.
The problem with being a celebrity is that there has to be a fall. In this incident, I see my own eye-rolling about token celebrity scientists, just written larger and with more joy in the mighty falling. We place a huge burden on the people we celebrate, especially when we try to slot them into neat, heroic places.
The story never ends. The woman who’d been christened Maria remained in France, and did great work there. But she never applied to the Academy of Sciences again, and she had to battle every step of the way. She set up her own Radiation Institute, and a lab in Warsaw, and brought her daughter up as a scientist and collaborator. After WW1, more and more of her time was taken up with the gritty business of raising funds. By 1922, radium had reached $100,000 a gram.
Curie succeeded by finding supporters, and by finding a way to use her own celebrity. Her lab was the world’s largest source of polonium, because grateful hospitals donated their leftovers from cancer treatment. And for radium, Curie looked overseas. The friendship between the scientist and an American journalist, Missy Meloney could fill a book on its own; the introvert and the extrovert, old Europe meeting brash America. Missy’s writing about Curie inspired American women, a let’s-buy-this-gal-some-radium drive that culminated in Curie’s 1921 visit to America, and a meeting with President Harding, who handed the stuff over. (Curie refused to accept the gift in her own name, and insisted it was made to the lab. She was now willing to work her “great woman” status, but that didn’t mean she had to like it.)
Marie Curie’s story made me think about one of the major debates in the history of science. Just what is science anyway? What are those lab coated geeks actually doing with their time? I’m a bit rusty, and almost certainly out of date, but as I was taught, it comes down to two theories. The first belongs to Karl Popper, and (apparently) is popular among scientists themselves. (I’m pretty sure that most of my scientist friends have far stronger views on scientific funding than the theories of philosophers, but there you go.) Popper thought that science proceeds by falsifying hypotheses. You pick a belief, like radiation killing you, and try to show that it isn’t right, to disprove it by finding a counter example. In this view of science, you never reach ultimate truth, because there’s always a chance you could be proven wrong. But you’re also always moving forwards, leaving a trail of falsified hypotheses in your wake. Science is logical, at heart, even if it can never offer perfect truth.
The rival idea was suggested by Thomas Kuhn, and tends to appeal to historians. He claimed that any attempt to understand the natural world is hopelessly tied to the society in which it takes place, and the intellectual framework that underlies the work you do. Most science, according to Kuhn, is people trying to solve the puzzles thrown up because the evidence doesn’t match the scientific framework, the paradigm that they’re working under. Only rarely do you get a moment where that framework changes, the paradigm shift. (Yes, Philosophy of Science brought the world the phrase “paradigm shift,” and we’re all very sorry about it.) When that happens, Kuhn believed that everything that comes after is so different to what came before that the practitioners might as well have been speaking a different language. Any two paradigms are “incommensurable” – there is no way to compare them, and no way to say which is right and wrong. They are their own separate worlds. Paradigms shift because of large, society wide movements, and the best any individual scientist can hope for is to solve useful puzzles in their own small field.
And so we’re back at the beginning. Is it right to have Marie Curie as a token great figure, pushing back the boundaries of ignorance? Should anyone be elevated to the status of hero of science, with all the baggage that comes with it? Or was everyone, from Einstein to Archimedes, really just trapped in their own, lonely, paradigms? This is an old argument. Thomas Carlyle came up with the “Great Man” theory of history in the 1840s, and by the 1860s there was already a counter argument pointing to the importance of societies. Today, we talk about systems thinking, or tipping points, but I think everyone just wants to know how much we can change our worlds. A lot of us probably agree at heart with the wonderfully named E.R Boring, who said that “the great man theory cannot be wrong. It expresses too obvious a truth about society.”
But the deeper you look into a story, the more people and characters it pulls in. You suddenly can’t move for diversions. What do you do with the fact that Curie’s granddaughter is alive today, a Professor of Nuclear Physics, and is married to Paul Langevin’s grandson? That’s some Teddy Lupin/Victoire Weasley level of tying up loose ends. The figure of Marie Curie is still there, in the middle. But there’s so much exciting stuff around the edges. This kind of thing, the housekeeping business of raising money, webs of personal relationships and support networks, are often seen as women’s concerns. They’re ignored or marginalized because it’s complex, messy, nuanced. Women’s stories are called soap operas, and maybe this is the soap opera side of science. But it’s that sort of messy stuff that helps to tell the sort of stories I’m interested in, and maybe should be more well known.
Of course, the one person who should just about know about the story of Marie Curie’s work is the woman herself. And, I hate to say it, but she didn’t care about any of that stuff. I feel like it’s important to give Curie her say, so, have it here: In 1911, the Academy of Stockholm wrote to her, asking her not to travel to accept her Prize. Curie’s reply is magnificently contemptuous. “The action that you advise would appear to be a grave error on my part. In fact, the Prize has been awarded for discovery of Radium and Polonium. I believe that there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life.” Her work can exist independently, outside of turn of the century morality, and outside of her own story.
She’s right, of course. But the science and the story should co-exist, if only to inspire people who know they could never live only for their work. No one has ever worked in a vacuum. In 1911 Marie Curie went to that ceremony – bringing Bronya, and Irene. You can read her speech on the Nobel Prize website, along with everyone else’s. She praises the work of Bequerel, of Rutherford, and of her late husband. But she also takes credit where it’s due, and notes that “The chemical work aimed at isolating radium in the state of the pure salt, and at characterizing it as a new element, was carried out specially by me.” She qualifies the backbreaking work she was still doing to isolate more Polonium, an element that breaks down while you work at it, and reduces itself by half every 140 days. The grand finale focuses on the difficulties of working with such rare, illusive and new compounds, and by looking forward to the future study of this “chemistry of the imponderable.”
And the science did move on. About 20 years after that speech, Irene Joliot-Curie brought Curie a present. Curie’s daughter was now a married woman, running the Radiation Institute her mother founded. Irene and her husband placed into Marie Curie’s burnt fingers a tube of “the first artificially radioactive element.” They would “never forget the expression of intense joy” which came over her face. The Joliot-Curie’s had changed one element into another, like alchemists, and proved that it was possible to force an atom to release some of its energy as radiation. Curie would die in 1934, the year they published their results. A decade after that, the sky turned violet over the New Mexico desert, as the first nuclear bomb shatters plutonium atoms, and causes the molecules of the air break down. And now, in the next millennium, we still use radiation to treat leukemia, and the last time a woman won a scientific Nobel Prize was in 2009. The two basic theories of history and of science agree on one thing. The story never ends, not in the way we’d like it to. There’s always more to discover, in a life, in science, even in the dirt from a mine. And no matter how famous someone is, or how much they’re used as a token, it’s usually worth looking a bit closer.
Helen lives in the UK, where she works in science media and wastes too much time online. She has a degree in the history of science.