Tuesday, 21 July 2015
Living Science Books for the 20th Century: Madame Curie by Eve Curie
This biography of Marie Curie (1867-1934) published in 1937, was written by her daughter, Eve.
I started reading it about two years ago and found it a little slow going at first, but about a third of the way through the book, Marie (Manya) Sklodovski met Pierre Curie, her future husband, and I really began to enjoy it.
In 1867, Manya Sklodovski was born into a Polish family, in what was then Russian Poland. The Polish people had rebelled against their oppressors in the past and had been severely punished. Now the battleground had changed and it was the intellectuals, the artists and the teachers who carried on the resistance.
Manya spent her early school years in clandestine Polish history lessons, interrupted at times by the despised Russian school inspectors. She was to retain her nationalist fervour all her life.
By the time Manya was 10 years of age, she had lost a sister to typhus and her mother, a devout Catholic, to tuberculosis. Although Manya had been a Christian by upbringing, her mother's death had shaken her faith, and by the time she was seventeen years old it had evaporated completely.
From the devoutness of her childhood there remained only vague aspirations, the unconscious wish to adore something very high and great.
Marie's dream was to study science at the Sorbonne in France but she had to spend six years as a governess before she was financially able to achieve her dream in 1891.
The part of the book I enjoyed most was the account of the dedication shown by the Curies in their search to discover Radium. Throughout years of hardship, four of them spent working in a dilapidated shed, they continued to be fascinated by a material which resisted their efforts to divulge its secrets, until finally they were able to announce the existence of Radium.
What does it matter to Science if her passionate servants are rich or poor, happy or unhappy, healthy or ill? She knows that they have been created to seek and to discover, and that they will seek and find until their strength dries up at its source.
Fame came upon the couple and they were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics along with Henri Becquerel, but the attention they received after this 'dispossessed them of the only treasures they wished to preserve: meditation and silence.'
Fame leaps upon the great, hangs its full weight upon them, attempts to arrest their development.
Pierre Curie was killed in a tragic accident in 1906 leaving his devastated wife to continue alone. By this stage they had two young daughters, Irene (later a famous scientist herself) and Eve, the writer of this biography.
In 1911 Marie was awarded her second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry (she was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize and the only person to receive it twice). Around this time she was involved in a personal scandal which the French press capitalised on, calling her "the foreign woman."
In her book, Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity, Naomi Pasachoff writes that Marie received a letter from a committee member of the Academy of Sciences advising her to:
...decline the prize until it had been proven that the accusations...were false. In a dignified response she indicated why she would not accept his advice: it was for her science, not her personal conduct, that had been deemed worthy of honor. The value of her discovery should in no way be diminished by rumours about her private life. Therefore she would accept the prize.
In 1914, at the outbreak of WWI, Marie used her scientific knowledge to put the first 'radiological car,' into action. These mobile X-ray stations were later nicknamed 'little Curies.'
As well as the twenty cars she equipped for this purpose, she also installed two hundred radiological rooms which were said to have treated over a million wounded men!
* The book was originally written in French and translated into English by Vincent Sheean. In some places it seems to have suffered a little in the translation but otherwise it is beautifully written.
* Eve Curie wrote a very loving and moving account of her mother's life but it did tend to depict her as almost saint-like. She had witnessed the vilification of her mother by French journalists and her rejection by the scientific authorities on the basis of race and gender, and I think it understandable that Eve Curie had no desire to revisit those times.
She summed up her view in these words:
Great men have always been subjected to the attacks of those who long to discover imperfect human creatures beneath the armour of genius. Without the terrible magnet of renown which had drawn sympathies and hatred upon her, Marie Curie would never have been criticised or calumniated. She now had another reason for hating fame.
* The Curies refused to patent their discoveries, which would have benefitted them financially and made their work much easier. They wanted others to be free to use the knowledge they had obtained.
* Both scientists were indifferent to the dangers of radioactivity. Pierre once exposed his arm to the effects of radium in order to describe and report on its actions. Marie died of aplastic anaemia when she was sixty-seven years old.
... the radiation of radium was "contagious" - contagious like a persistent scent or a disease.
This contagion, which interfered with the results of precise experiments, was a daily enemy to Pierre and Marie Curie.
A hundred years later, the Curie's notebooks are still radioactive.
...the radio elements formed strange and cruel families in which each member was created by the spontaneous transformation of the mother substance: radium was a "descendant" of uranium, polonium a descendant of radium.
I'll be including this book in our Year 11 Ambleside Online plans but it would be suitable for younger students, around 14 years of age and up (but read Annie Kate's comment below).
(Caveat: Chapter XVII mentions a period when the Curies took a 'strange path' and explored 'this dangerous region.' This referred to their involvement in spiritism which Marie abandoned after a few years but it doesn't go into much detail)
The book has been reprinted but is also available free online.
For younger readers:
The Story of Madame Curie by Alice Thorne is a Signature Biography which has made use of some of the dialogue from Eve Curie's book. It would fit well chronologically in Term 3 of Ambleside Online Year 5.