Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Speaking of measurement scales: Radioactivity is measured in units called "curies"

Her likeness has appeared on a Polish banknote, a Soviet postage stamp, and on the last French 500-franc note (before conversion to the Euro.)

The element with the atomic number 96 is called "curium".

There are statues of her. Untold institutions all over the world are named after her.

Albert Einstein said she was probably the only person not corrupted by the fame she had won.

Madame Curie died in 1934. She coined the term "radioactive" and discovered two elements: palonium and radium. Her first name wasn't really Madame. Or Marie, either. Her name was really Marya Salomee Sklodowska. Actually (depending on your linguistic persuasion) Mary, Marie, Maria, and Marya are the same.

Madame Curie was the first woman buried in the Pantheon in Paris. Or her ashes, to be more precise. This is a great honor. I almost said "Parthenon" but that is in Centennial Park in Nashville. A copy of the Nashville one is also in Greece.

[Please watch this space for an upcoming post on the beautiful Pantheon of Paris.]

She named the element polanium after her native country, Polandium. She later became a French citizen. Alors.

Madame Curie earned two advanced degrees, one in physics and one in mathematics, from the Sorbonne. Sorbonne doesn't mean anything - it was just named after Robert de Sorbon. It is really many universities. Founded in, like, 1250 or thereabouts. Many of its grounds are exceedingly gorgeous, but will probably not achieve postdom from yours truly. But never say never, eh?

She (our Marya) was the first woman professor at the University of Paris. She was the first person to receive two Nobel Prizes (One for physics and later one for chemistry.) Her husband Pierre also won a Nobel Prize. So did her daughter. So did her son. (Not all at the same time.) That is also probably a first.

[Fun fact: Not all famous people are rich: The Curies reportedly used part of their Nobel Prize money to replace the wallpaper in their home, and to upgrade to modern indoor plumbing. Of course, they also gave some money to needy students as well.]

Pierre bore an uncanny resemblance to Vincent Van Gogh, except that he had two ears. If you are using this post as source material for a term paper on Pierre, perhaps you might want to omit that last part, as it is only undocumented personal opinion.

She conducted research into the treatment of Cancers with radioactive isotopes. ("She" again being Madame Curie. Sorry.)

In April, 1906, Pierre was killed in a street accident. Walking across the street in heavy rain, he was struck and run over by a horse-drawn carriage and his skull fractured. It has been speculated that he had been weakened by his long exposure to radioactivity, but this was never proven, so I won't even mention it here.

After her husband's death, the Sorbonne physics department entrusted his chair to Marie, and later she became a full professor there. She was the first woman professor at the Sorbonne. Even so, and despite her education and achievements, the French Academy of Sciences refused to admit her as a member, because she was a woman. Indeed, it would be a half-century later before a woman would be admitted (Marguerite Perey, in 1962.) Ironically, Perey had been a doctoral student under Madame Curie.

Marie and her husband Pierre discovered much about uranium and other elements and radioactive isotopes, and about their attributes and possible uses. But they were never aware of what radioactivity could do to the human body; they worked around and handled the substances for many years with no protection. She died on the Fourth of July, 1934, of aplastic anemia - almost certainly contracted from her long exposure to radiation.

Not knowing the effects of radiation, she carried test tubes of the radioactive isotopes around with her in her pockets, and kept them in her desk. It is said she remarked on the beauty of the blue-green light the material gave off in the dark. A remarkable lady.


  1. It is a lovely post, but I would suggest that the "fact" about Pierre is not the only one that should be double checked if you're writing a term paper (Nashville indeed!), even though it's up to it's eyeballs in great facts, some of which I didn't know. But one should always doublecheck facts for a term paper.

    The problem with Max is he likes to throw out zingers for a lark because they're funny in the midst of a fascinating discussion full of good facts. That's also the charm of Max.

    This is great stuff and, interestingly enough, if you look at many of the founding fathers in radiation and nuclear physics, you'll see that a frightening proportion died of cancer. I don't think it's a coincidence.

    The effect of radiation on organs, skin and reproduction was frequently discovered the hard way. For instance, we learned a great deal about it from the survivors at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    However, our understanding of radioactive isotopes, however, went misunderstood a long time. For instance, originally glow in the dark watch dials were painted with a small amount of radium. The (mostly) women painting them had no idea that the radium might be harmful. They would like the paintbrush tips to make them small enough to paint the numbers and even paint their own teeth for the effect, with no idea it was risky.

    Years later, bones would break with surprising ease. One woman's femur broke spontaneously while walking! Kind of puts some credence in the possibility Pierre's death might have been furthered by his work with the same material.

    Fascinating topic. For reading on this, I strongly recommend Multiple Exposures: Chronicles of the Radiation Age (you can buy it from most book sellers; amazon was the easiest link for me to find) by Catherine Caufield. Wikipedia has an excellent list of radiation and nuclear accidents. Fascinating! I've independently verified several but no means all of these (just those that interested me).

    Cu, by the way, is an SI unit, but then you knew that.

  2. Damn my stupid fingers! The symbol for Curie is Ci! Sorry!

  3. And this, this was fascinating (From Wikipedia

    "Due to their levels of radioactivity, her papers from the 1890s are considered too dangerous to handle. Even her cookbook is highly radioactive. They are kept in lead-lined boxes and those who wish to consult them, must wear protective clothing."

  4. Also, to the best of my knowledge, the Curies only had two daughters. It was her son-in-law and her daughter (his wife) that won Nobel Prizes. Two others from the Radium Institute the Curies founded also won Nobel Prizes.

  5. @Stephanie B - Thank you for reading it. Sorry the way I tend to blog is frustrating to you. It's just my personality to not be 100% serious. I mean no harm. On the other hand, if you would take the time to google "Nashville - Parthenon", you might not be so dismissive of my "humor". If you do choose to google it, google it on images instead of web so you caan see how beautiful it is.

    I found your additional facts fascinating! What started out for me as just casual reading, has turned into genuine interest. I hope you will share more with me if you think of some more.

    You don't want me to comment about bombing Japan.

  6. There is an outside chance you are wrong about the number of children they had. You might want to research it a bit more.

  7. I went to the Panthéon, you know. I went with an American friend of mine when we lived in Paris and I was taken on "slow walks" every Tuesday. At the time the Panthéon was closed for renovation but, somehow, the details escape me, we found ourselves peering through a gap between pillars at the totally deserted place. My American friend was, and presumably still is, bigger than I am, so I found myself being propelled forward for a better look. Does that make her a pushy American?

    I will go back for a legal look before too long I hope, to see the people honoured by being buried there - because it really is a great honour. The Pantheon in Rome is different if only because it's far more ancient. Even in February it was crowded. Maybe the Paris version is normally crowded too.....

    P.S. have you looked at the Roman measurement system? You must, because it is totally fascinating. Truly.

  8. @Stephanie B - You are right, of course. I apologize. Curie had two daughters and it was her daughter's husband who won a Nobel. And Irene. She didn't have a son. I will atone by using nothing but metric for 3 days.

  9. Fair enough, Max. I had never heard of the Parthenon in Nashville and I'm quite impressed. I had never heard of it and it looks fabulous. I was also impressed that it was built back in the 19th century (even if it was reworked later).

    I'm not saying that it's a greater achievement than the original (which is built of marble to the exact same proportions but with far more primitive tools), but it's certainly cool beans.

    As for the subject, I've always been interested in nuclear physics - my uncle was a nuclear physicist - but I became fascinated with the history after reading Caulfield's book I cited. I was truly amazed at what I didn't know.

  10. I'm not frustrated with you throwing in zingers - like I said, it's part of your charm - but the zingers often sound so in keeping with the plethora of real stuff you include that it can throw the unwary.

    I loved this article and, in fact, a number of your pieces, which is why yours is one of my favorite blogs to check as soon as something new is added.



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