Marie Curie pt.1

It was a bleak morning in November, 1891, when a slight Polish girl clambered down the steps or the German coach at the Gare du Nord. In her hands was clutched her luggage, a folding chair (for the fourth class carriages on the German railways had no seats), a heavy quilt, some books, and food.

She had travelled three days from Warsaw to join her sister, who, while qualifying as a doctor, had married a member of her faculty, also a Pole.

Their mother had died when they were small, leaving the father to raise a family of four girls and a boy.

Both father and mother were teachers. The father, a teacher of physics and mathematics out of favour with the Tsarist inspectors, found his family a problem.

Poland was under the Tsar, no higher education, or professional status, was open to women. After several disappointing years in various posts as ‘governess’ to wealthy families, the girl, Marya, surname Sklodowsky, counted up every farthing of her pitiful savings for the great adventure.

She had left the Girls’ High School in Warsaw with the highest marks obtainable, and a remarkable knowledge of four foreign languages.

Now, at last, after years of scraping, she was in Pans, bringing her blankets, a mattress, towels and sheets, which her practical sister, Bronya, had said would save precious francs. Her goal, the legendary Sorbonne, now, as then, the largest University in the world.

France, despite the setbacks of 1848 and the Commune, was still the most democratic country in Europe. Fees at the University were not high and no discrimination was made against applicants of foreign birth, off-white colour, or lowly origin; which a certain Creole, by name Paul Lafargue, had appreciated some years previously.

Marya immediately plunged into a life of fanatical study, her star, the Master’s degree in Physical Science. Lodging with her married sister, at first, she subsequently rented a tiny sixth-floor attic in the Latin Quarter to save time and bus fares. Food and warmth were secondary—so limited were her means (partly a small sum contributed by her ageing father), that she regularly frequented the public library till closing time to save a penny on lamp oil.

If her brother-in-law had not found her and not been a doctor of medicine, radium might be unknown to this day, for she was unconscious in her garret from starvation, cold and fatigue.

A few beefsteaks in the country soon fixed that, with the result that for the first time a girl was top in the master’s degree examinations in Physics in 1893.

This triumph was repeated in 1894 when she was first in Physics—and second in Maths. Her outstanding success secured her modest employment in research, as assistant and later as full-fledged research scientist to the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry. More than this, upon return to Poland to see her father—even the officials in Warsaw had at least sense enough to realise that here, they were onto something, and granted her a bursary far a further year’s study at the Sorbonne. Back she went, with nothing less that the Doctor’s degree as her aim.

For this, an original discovery is required. Characteristically, Marya selected as the subject of her doctor’s theses, just about the most difficult job there was. She decided to investigate the source of Henri Becqueret’s mysterious rays. The French physicist had been working on the strange emanations from uranium salts which he had discovered.

For her research into the magnetism of steel she required same rather heavy equipment. A Polish Professor of Physics, visiting Paris, Joseph Kovalski, offered to speak to the chief of the laboratory of the School of Physics and Chemistry, on her behalf. The name of this unique young scientist was Pierre Curie. He was a Bachelor of Science at 16, a Master of Physics at 18. His father practised medicine for a livelihood though his bent was research.

A staunch ’48er, Papa was a freethinking radical of the old brigade. To make quite certain that his brilliant son had a real education, he took care to see that he did not go to any school. He taught the boy himself and afterwards secured him a gifted tutor.

The result of the introduction of Marya to Pierre Curie was marriage.

Shortly before his marriage Pierre published the results of his research into crystalline physics, which won him a brilliant Doctor’s degree. During this time the sole income of the pair was his salary of 500 francs per month.

Until Marya passed first in the examinations and for a Fellowship in secondary education. it was impossible for her to teach in France. Meantime, in September, 1897, Marya gave birth to her first daughter Irene, destined to become a famous physicist, and marry her mother’s most able pupil, Frederic Joliot.

Marya decided to study the ionisation power of uranium—that is, to test it on an electroscope, an instrument showing a charge by raising a piece of gold-leaf. In a few weeks she was on to the idea that the radiations of uranium were an atomic property of the material itself.

The problem of whether any other substances possessed these powers next arose.

Her job now was to test every known chemical body. Soon another material, the element thorium, was found to emit radiation. Madame Curie suggested that this peculiar property be called ‘radio-activity’. Continuing along the path she had set, the young scientist proceeded to examine every specimen of mineral known to contain uranium, or thorium. for activity. To her astonishment, certain substances quite deficient in either of these elements proved more radio-active than either of them.

To this there could only be one answer. She had examined all the known elements, therefore the powerful radio-activity must come from an unknown—a new element. An element is a substance consisting entirely of atoms of the same atomic number.

There now began one of the most astounding quests in all the remarkable history of scientific discovery. The proportion of the active stuff was minute—it was like looking for a needle in a haystack as big as a mountain—one gramme to one ton, or about one in one million.

The strongest rays of all had been given by the mineral pitch-blend, a greyish by-product of the glass making industry of Bohemia. The first ton was obtained, and the job that was to take four years began. The material had to be heated, evaporated and allowed to crystallise, like sugar, and the crystals tested. Twelve months after commencing her research the following communication was published in the Proceedings of the Academy of Science .

“The various reasons we have just enumerated lead us to believe that the new radio-active substance contains a new element to which we propose to give the name of Radium . . . The radio-activity of Radium must be enormous.”

As is usual, this announcement met with sceptical indifference. Polonium and radium had to be ‘shown’ to the scientists before they would believe it.

To find a place to do the job was the first problem. They were loaned the use of a shed at the Institute of Physics.

To get the stuff was the second. By a lucky break, the Austrian Government decided to present a ton of pitch-blend free, as a sample, though carriage had to be paid. To live while working was the third. Pierre had to go on teaching. Not only this, but at a critical stage in her research work, Marie had to turn out too.

She accepted a post as lecturer in physics at the Higher Normal School for Girls at Sevres, near Versailles, a Teachers’ Training College.

This meant hours of setting lessons, preparing experiments, and correcting ‘homework’, while the greatest discovery of all time was postponed. During all this time the Curie’s most urgent needs, a decent laboratory in which to work, was denied them. Despite all the efforts of his friends neither the University nor the Academy of Science would make him any appointment carrying adequate laboratory facilities. At last, Paul Appell (head of the physics faculty) made a further attempt by means of a manoeuvre, namely, by nominating Pierre for award of the Legion of Honour.

Here is Pierre’s reply:-

“Please be so kind as to thank the Minister and to inform him that I do not feel the slightest need of being decorated, but that I am in the greatest need of a laboratory.”

Some three years later Pierre and Marie were invited to, the Royal Scientific Institution in London to receive the Davy Gold Medal. Upon their return to Paris Pierre gave it to the children to play with.

Marie, at one of the brilliant functions organised after the discovery of Radium, was asked by the wife of the President of the Republic of France, “Would you like to meet his Excellency the King of Greece?”

“I don’t see the utility!” was her reply.

It was inevitable that under the severe strains of earning a living by teaching science, bringing up two daughters, and devoting every available minute left to the completion of the task of isolating a grain of radium, the health of both Pierre and Marie would break down. By 1903 Pierre was suffering violent attacks of frightful pain periodically. In the same year Marie endured a miscarriage due, as she herself admitted, to ‘general fatigue’.

In her work to obtain salts of pure radium Marie was in the words of her daughter-biographer Eve, ‘a factory all by herself’.

Eve Curie’s book ‘Marie Curie’, is a MUST for every Socialist.

“We had no money, no laboratory, and no help,” she wrote. And yet it was in this miserable old shed that the best and happiest years of our life were spent . . . I sometimes passed the whole day stirring a boiling mass with an iron rod nearly as big as myself, In the evening I was broken with fatigue.”

Forty-five months after the day in which they had forecast the probable existence of Radium, Marie announced its atomic weight, 225. Nineteenth Century Science was knocked out. A new chapter in its chequered history had begun


(Part two)

Leave a Reply