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The Adventure Science Center Blog

ASC Science Educators and guest authors exploring our world and the science and technology that connects us

 

MARIE CURIE by Molly Hornbuckle, Marketing Coordinator

Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and – above all – confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.

Perseverance. Confidence. Belief. Three ideals that helped Marie Curie to overcome great obstacles and become one of the most revered woman scientists in history. Known as the “Mother of Modern Physics,” she was the first woman to win Nobel Prizes in two different disciplines.

But that’s not what makes her story special.

Born in Poland in 1867, Marie was the youngest of five children. Both of her parents were educators, so they understood the importance of receiving a good education. After graduating high school, Marie and her older sister, Bronya, wanted to attend college, but the University of Warsaw did not accept women. The two sisters made a pact. Marie agreed to work as a governess to help pay for Bronya’s tuition for a medical school in Paris. As soon as Bronya could, she would help pay for Marie’s education.

Marie began a course of self-study in her downtime while teaching the household’s children, though unsure of where her academic interests centered. She began to take chemistry lessons from a chemist in the beet-sugar factory once she realized math and physical sciences were her forte. And she even took an advanced math course with her father via mail.

Eventually, Marie found her way to the University of Paris where she quickly rose to first in her class, earned her master’s degree in physics, and received a scholarship from women’s education advocates to take a second degree in mathematics. It was here that she met her future husband and research collaborator, Pierre.

While the scientific community was fascinated by the emerging discoveries around X-rays that could travel through flesh to provide a picture of bones, Marie wanted to know what happened to the similar “uranium rays” that French physicist Henri Becquerel discovered around the same time. She began to measure the faint electrical currents in the air that had been bombarded by uranium rays, which revealed that the rays remained constant no matter how the uranium ore was treated.

From this research, Marie formed a revolutionary hypothesis… if the emission of these rays was an atomic property of uranium, the accepted view of the atom as the smallest possible fragment of matter was false.

She began to test this hypothesis by exploring all of the known chemical ores to see if others would emit rays in the same manner, with the ones that had this effect being termed as “radioactive.” Pierre was so intrigued by her work that he joined in her research efforts, and soon the pair revealed that two uranium ores were much more radioactive than pure uranium, and potentially contained undiscovered radioactive elements.

In 1898, the Curies published their conclusion that the bismuth compound contained a radioactive element they named polonium. By the end of the year, a second radioactive element – radium – had been discovered. Although the nominating committee objected including a woman as a Nobel Laureate, Pierre insisted the original research was Marie’s and, in 1903, the Curies, alongside Becquerel, were named winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics for their contributions to the understanding of atomic structure. Marie’s second Nobel Prize in 1911 was awarded in Chemistry for her discovery of the elements polonium and radium.

Through her perseverance, confidence and belief, Marie left her mark on not only the scientific community, but our world as a whole.

- Molly Hornbuckle, Marketing Coordinator

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Posted by Molly Hornbuckle at 3:00 PM
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