Thursday, 16 September 2010

A Pioneer of her Time

I recently had the great privilege of being invited to La Sorbonne - Universite de Paris in France and I was immediately reminded of my early childhood memory of this great place of learning and the prestige it holds for academic studies and research. Even as a fledgling scientist, I remember being fascinated by the pioneering work and steely determination of a great academic of her generation; Marie Curie (nee Sklodowska), who being of Polish descent and a woman, faced significant prejudice and hostility for entering any study at all but even the French had to ultimately concede to the sheer brilliance and genius of this remarkable and talented scientist. She not only shaped the way women in science are viewed today but the manner in which women can be held as equals in a field dominated by men, not to mention the enormous contribution that she made to science which has far-reaching medical applications to this day. Even Francois Mitterand who before ending his 14-year presidency, took the initiative to ensure her final resting place under the mighty dome of the Pantheon - a significantly high honour indeed only reserved for distinguished French citizens. She was the first woman to be laid to rest there and now lies alongside celebrated people in history such as Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur and Louis Braille. And of course is laid to rest beside her beloved husband and collaborator, Pierre Curie.

Marie Curie's achievements are ever the more remarkable given the enormous struggles she faced to quench her thirst for knowledge and in the pursuit of higher education. Firstly, she was poor and had to honour her agreement with her sister Bronya to fund her medical studies in exchange for Bronya to return the favour when she had completed her training. It was not until Marie Curie was 24 years that she finally came to La Sorbonne to study physics and mathematics in 1891. Bearing in mind that this was still an era where the roles of women and attitudes towards them were very much entrenched in dogma and inequality, Marie Curie set a precedent that would determine the course for many pioneering women, particularly in education and research.

Of course, she completed her studies with flying colours with an intention to to take the teacher's diploma and then to return to Poland. Her meeting Pierre Curie was not only fortuitous for her (he made a great collaborator being her intellectual equal and sharing a mutual passion for scientific discovery) but also good fortune for science and medicine. Pierre Curie was a brilliant scientist and though not formally trained, he made a living as Head of a laboratory, an internationally known physicist but an outsider in the French scientific community. Together with his brother, he had discovered piezoelectricity; the generation of a (electrical) potential difference when mechanical stresses are applied to certain crystals including quartz. Such crystals are now used in a multitude of electronic gadgets including microphones, electronic apparatus and clocks... to name but a few! Therefore, it is easy to see the attraction between Pierre and Marie Curie.

Marie Curie submitted her doctoral thesis in 1895 on the connection between temperature and magnetism - a phenomenon that is now referred to as Curie's Law. However, it was her later work that was to earn her the distinction she so well deserved but it took many years of painful research and a dogged determination to prove her theories in order to get there. In 1896 Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium salts emitted rays that arose spontaneously, a discovery that later earned him a Nobel prize. It was this discovery that initiated Marie's research into radioactivity and in particular the nature and manner of it in 2 specific uranium minerals: pitcblende and torbernite (also known as chalcolite). Using the sensitive electrometer, a device designed by her husband and his brother to measure electrical charge, Marie Curie had shown that uranium had caused the air around the sample to conduct electricity. She further showed that radiation was not the outcome of some interaction of molecules (as was believed at the time) but must come from the atom itself. In scientific terms, this was the single most important piece of work that she conducted. In her systematic search for other substances that emitted radiation, Marie Curie had found that the element thorium was also radioactive.

This work was all-consuming and Pierre gave up his work on crystals to assist Marie in her research into isolating sufficient quantities of pure minerals that were radioactive. At the time, little was known about the potentially damaging effects of radiation, a discovery that was to have a devastating impact in Marie Curie's life in later years. In July 1898, they published their paper on the existence of 'polonium' (named in honour of Marie's native Poland) and later that year, in December 1898, they announced the discovery of a second element which they named 'radium' for its intense radioactivity. Extracting suffcient quantities of pure radium was a particularly arduous task, the harzards of which we only know in recent years. It was not until 1910 by continuing with this vital work despite losing her husband in a traffic accident in 1906 that she managed to isolate pure radium metal.
Above all her discoveries and devastating loss, one thing stands out for which we are eternally grateful and earns respect and admiration - she intentionally refused to patent the radium isolation process, a decision based on the premise that the scientific community could do research unhindered. Along with Henri Becquerel and her husband Pierre, she was awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 1903. She later went on to gain another one in chemistry (1911) but hey, who's counting?

Her legacy today is that the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine and diagnostics have all benefitted from her discoveries and her research. Without such pioneering work, her sheer brilliance combined with a detemination and diligence to scientific discovery, we would not enjoy the benefits of modern medicine (use of X-Rays and radiotherapy in cancer) or technology. She was independent, unique, uncompromising and above all, uncorrupted given that she refused to patent any of her discoveries when she could have had so much to gain financially.

Because of the high levels of radioactivity, her papers are considered too dangerous to handle. Some of her personal effects are stored in lead cases and others are too toxic to ever be exhibited to the public (unless you sign a disclaimer saying that you view them at your own risk!).

Marie Curie died of aplastic anaemia in 1934 almost certainly caused by exposure to radiation. Nowadays, aplastic anaemia is sometimes associated with exposure to toxins.

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