Friday, 13 February 2015

Madame Curie and her daughters

Marie Curie and her  Daughters – Shelley Emling. Palgrave Macmillan  2012. 

Written on April 30th 2013

Marie Curie was born in Poland and met her husband Pierre Curie in Paris.  He was a scientist attached to the Sorbonne but he was killed in an accident in 1906 when he was still young.  She had joined him in his scientific work and she continued on as a scientist after his death. 

Marie and Pierre on their wedding day.
They had two daughters who were named Irène and Eve.  Marie Curie was of course famous as, with her husband,  the discoverer of Radium and Polonium in 1898  and was unique in receiving two Nobel prizes for her work on radium and radiation.  She remained a celebrity in France until she became involved with another young scientist who was married.  Her treatment by the French, particularly by the Catholic Church and those of the the right wing, reminded me much of the treatment received by Dreyfus when he was wrongly accused of leaking information to the Germans.  She was under considerable pressure from the public and from a number of her own colleagues to return to Poland because of her disgrace.  She resisted all pressures and she was greatly supported in the United States where she was received always as a celebrity, where she had many close friends and where much money was collected for her work on radiation. It was also surely unique that her daughter Irène won a Nobel Prize later in her life having joined her mother as a scientist.  Her daughter received her Nobel Prize because of her discovery of nuclear fission. Her second daughteÈve was younger and was less interested in science; she became a well-known media person and author. 

Before her disgrace in France, Marie Curie was considered by the French as an inspiration for women, particularly in such an unusual area as science.    Her lover was Paul Langevin and the love affair continued for some years but eventually petered out by the beginning of the Great War in 1914, although they continued to remain close friends afterwards.  The affair was a considerable source of pressure on Marie but nevertheless she succeeded in overcoming all the difficulties created by her critics.

Marie visited America and went to the Standard Chemical Company in Pittsburgh where she spent some time – three hours or more – talking to them about the production of radium.  Since 1960 radium is no longer purified although there remains still a lot in storage.  It is used in atomic bombs amongst other things but there is quite an interesting account in the book of  her visit to the Standard Chemical Company at the end of her stay in America.

Chapter 6 – New and Improved – deals with the dangers of radium and the gradual realisation by some that people were dying from radiation exposure.  The chapter also deals with the adoption in the early 1920’s of attempts to protect people from X-ray radiation and these rules became more widespread and more serious by the mid-twenties.  It was clear that there were many other people who refused to accept that radium and polonium were likely causes of serious illness and death but again there were others who were pretty well convinced by the evidence at the same time.  

Chapter 7 – Another dynamo duo – in December 1924 Frederic Joliot joined Marie Curie in her laboratory as a junior assistant.  He was to become a famous associate of hers as well as marrying her daughter Irène and this chapter dealt mostly with Irène and Frederic and with Irène’s increasing success and her recognition as being an important scientist by the French.  She too received a Nobel Prize.  She had a daughter shortly after they got married – Hélène and later a son, Pierre. Both are esteemed scientists. In this chapter there is a brief description of the month long trip to Brazil where she and her mother gave a number of well attended lectures and were accorded a number of receptions etc.  It was a long trip, taking them two weeks to get to Brazil and two weeks to return. 

We are reminded in chapter 8 – Returning to America again – of the fact that Marie was born in Poland and was fiercely proud of her country.  It had received its first freedom from the Russians, Germans and Austrians in 1918 and she was determined to set up a radium institute there as well.  This chapter deals with her ambitions and her relations to Poland and with her approach to Missy Maloney to organise a fund raising scheme in America to finance her Polish ambitions.  I haven’t read the chapter in every detail but obviously the Poles in America were amongst the most enthusiastic to support this fund raising campaign.  In order to further the Polish initiative, Marie went to America again where she spent some weeks.  Nevertheless it was clear that the Americans were not quite as enthusiastic as her previous visit.  She received a gift of 50 thousand dollars, which was quite a lot of money at the time and it enabled her to proceed with her plans for Warsaw.  She was in Warsaw at the beginning of the big crash in the stock market in 1928 and she was lucky that the money had been collected and was presented to her the day after the first sign of the crash.  It was presented to her by the President.

The world's first atomic bomb
Chapter 9 – Into the Spotlight – was important because, through the researches by Irène and  Fredric, they discovered  nuclear fission which was to lead eventually to information they had about the instability of the radium atom and about the first step towards harnessing atomic energy and eventually the atomic bomb produced in the US in 1944. 

The next few chapters deal mostly with research work by Frederic and Irène.   This concerned work in relation to radioactivity and the emission of radiation to non- radiant objects.  It was clear that much of the research done by Irène and Frederic and by many other physicists then in Europe, including those who left Germany for America (I suppose because they were Jewish) were active in this area of research. They were well on the road to the discovery of the atomic bomb; although they may not have realised the appalling possibilities of such discoveries.  The Frederic and Irène discovery is described in a later chapter as artificial radio activity.  Marie and Pierre had discovered natural radioactivity; it was perhaps ironic that Irène and her husband discovered artificial radio activity.  It was clear that the work of Irène and Frederic had opened up a new understanding of the nucleus of the atom and thus provided an extension of the research performed by Marie and Pierre. As well as their discovery of natural radioactivity, and the properties of a few elements, the study of the latter two lead to new insights into the atomic structure.  The next generation took this finding further by showing how scientists could duplicate this natural phenomenon artificially.  

Marie Curie with Albert Einstein
Marie died in 1934, almost certainly from aplastic anaemia or something related to her exposure to radium. Irène and Frederic got their Nobel Prize in 1935. In chapter 10 Frederic refers to the possibility of the nuclear bomb at the end of his speech at the time of the receipt of the Nobel Prize.  In chapter 11 Frederic says that he stated, “ neither of us could have imagined the repercussions of their research” – referring to Irène and Frederic and their desire for peace; but they continued their researches into radioactivity and artificial radio activity. 

Coming closer to the end of the book  Frederic and Irène showed increasing interest in the Nazi’s and they were very much opposed to the appeasement by France and the British to the German presence in France and were entirely opposed to Nazism in all forms. They took precautions to conceal the knowledge and information they were privy to during the occupation and whatever they garnered during their researches was not revealed until 1949.  After the war was over and Fredric and Irène had returned to Paris – just after they had dropped the second plutonium bomb on Nagasaki killing 140,000 people – they continued the use of atomic fission despite the bombing of Japan.  They both felt partly to blame for all that had transpired, as did other scientists in the same field of research.  What they had hoped was that fission would lead to a promising new source of power but instead it had lead to massive death and devastation.

After the War, at the request of the French government, Frederic was invited to organise the building of atomic reactors to provide energy for the country and for it to become an important source of energy, particularly as France, depleted as it was by the ravages of war, was able to export  energy to other countries.  Frederic, as High Commissioner of the Ministry of Atomic Energy was placed in charge of all the scientific and technical work in this area.   Irène was also very much involved.  The radioactive isotopes derived from her and Frederic’s discovery of artificial radio activity was one of the important benefits of their research.

A mobile xray truck
The discovery of artificial radioactivity has helped physicians with medical treatments since the 1930s.  Just one important and useful example, radioactive versions of potassium and technetium can allow us to trace where the elements travel and lodge in a patient.  A sensitive detector picks up the radioactivity outside the body and can locate and track the flow of blood and nutrients into certain organs.

The final chapter of the book underlines Irène’s important role in research and also mentions Eve because of her reputation as a media figure, a public speaker, a biographer and a journalist. She was noted as an active humanitarian with her husband during their various world travels. Eve died in 2007 at the age of 102.  Her husband was among other things the head of UNICIF. 

The last page or two of the book makes a plea to have more women in science, in education and equal in every way with men. As I listen nowadays to the radio and television, I wonder if women are outstripping men in the public arena. I am increasingly impressed by so many articulate and confident women commentators we encounter in the media and even in sporting events.

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