Aquila Children's Magazine The Electric Issue - Page 20

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MADAME CURIE! ‘Nothing is to be feared. It is only to be understood.’ These are the words of Marie Curie, believed by many to have been one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. Marie Curie became the first woman in Europe to receive a doctorate in science. She was the first woman to teach at the world-famous Sorbonne University in Paris and the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics. This month we celebrate the 150th anniversary of her birth. Marie Sklodowska was born in the Polish capital, Warsaw, on 7 November 1867. Well known for her prodigious memory, she did well at school but was not able to move on to higher education straight away. Polish universities did not accept women students then and she could not afford to go to a university abroad. To raise the money she needed to study at the Sorbonne University in Paris, Marie worked first as a teacher and then as a governess. In Paris, times were hard. Marie lived in a small attic at the top of a large house and seems to have survived on a diet of bread, butter and tea. While studying for her degree in mathematical sciences, which she gained in 1894, she met and married another student at the Sorbonne, Pierre Curie. It was a partnership that would soon lead to discoveries of world- changing importance. RADIOACTIVE ROYALTY The Curies first studied the powerful rays, similar to X-rays, given off by the element uranium. They called the process radioactivity. Then they began to experiment with a uranium-rich mineral called uraninite (formerly pitchblende). Its radioactivity appeared to be far greater than that of uranium. This led to the discovery of a new radioactive element. They named it polonium, after the country of Marie’s birth. Another new element, radium, was also discovered. Even the birth of the couple’s two daughters, Irene (1897) and Eve (1904) 20 Marie around 1900 did not halt their work. The couple used most of their money to pay for equipment and materials, did most of their work in a small, draughty, damp shed and suffered burns and illness because of the toxic chemicals they were handling. In recognition of their major discoveries they were awarded one of science’s top prizes, the Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1903. GRIEF STRICKEN Then, suddenly, disaster struck. One day in 1904, as Pierre crossed a busy street in Paris, he was struck and killed by a heavily loaded horse-drawn cart. Marie was devastated to have lost both her husband and her lab partner. She wrote in her diary, ‘How can I continue to work in a laboratory where I never thought I would have to live without you.’ From then on though Marie devoted even more time and energy to completing the scientific work she and Pierre had started together. In 1906 she was appointed to the professorship that had been left by her husband’s death and became the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne. She was awarded a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, for achieving the isolation of pure radium. She was responsible for the opening of the Institute of Radium in Paris and, during the First World War, worked with her daughter Irene to develop the use of radioactivity in the field of medicine. This included the provision of ‘Little Curies’, small mobile trucks containing X-ray machines that were able to visit surgical stations on the front line to help diagnose soldiers’ injuries. In later life, Marie travelled the world lecturing and receiving medals, degrees and other awards. Marie and Pierre