Marie Curie And Her Influence On Scientific World

As one of history’s most notable women, Marie Curie contributed much to science and to the world, despite the hardships she faced all throughout her life. Her discoveries, polonium and radium and the work she did with radioactivity laid the foundation for science today. 

Marie was born Marya Sklodowska on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland to Bronsitwa Skłodowska, and Ladislas Sklodowski, a mathematics and physics professor, who both believed that education was of great importance. Marie was born during a time when Poland was rebelling against Russian rule, and she was already thrust into difficult circumstances. Russian authorities prohibited practical education in schools, so her father brought home his lab, beginning Marie’s lifelong love of science. Since she was young, Marie pursued science and mathematics with a passion and was brilliant and studious. But as a female and a Pole, it was an obstacle for her to follow that dream. In Des Jardins’s (2011) words, “Curie worked during a great age of innovation, but proper women of her time were thought to be too sentimental to perform objective science”. 

Even if she was a woman, Curie was still able to contribute to the modern age of scientific innovation. Later on, after high school, she wasn’t allowed to attend the University of Warsaw, since she was a woman, but she didn’t allow that to bar her from getting her education, so for five years, she worked as a governess and tutor to raise money for tuition to attend the Sorbonne, one of the main universities in Paris. There, she studied hard, despite the bad conditions she lived under. She received her physics degree in 1893, the first to finish in her class, then in 1894, her master’s degree. The same year she received her master’s degree, she was introduced to Pierre, and they were married in July 1895. They were both physics majors, and they worked together and made important scientific discoveries. Marie’s work on radiation truly started after she married Pierre and had her daughter, Iréne. She built upon the work of physicists Antoine-Henri Becquerel and Wilhelm Roentgen. Becquerel discovered radioactivity, and that uranium produces rays of radiation that have strong and plentiful energy. Roentgen discovered and made electromagnetic radiation in Roentgen/x- rays. Curie’s goal was to find substances and elements that emitted radiation just like uranium. Radiation is the emission of energy through electromagnetic waves or high energy subatomic particles. Her hypothesis was that “this radiation came from the atom itself as a type of disintegration while the commonly held belief stressed the indivisibility of the atom”. The Curies decided to use pitchblende to conduct research, which contains high concentrations of radiation ore, the perfect material to work with. From pitchblende, they extracted polonium, which she named after her home country. The Curies continued their work after that discovery, which required a lot of effort. The pitchblende had to be separated little by little, then, painstakingly measured as accurately as possible. Marie and Pierre played different roles: Marie would do the extremely demanding job of physically separating the pitchblende she accrued from a mine in Poland, and Pierre would analyze the compounds’ physical and chemical properties from the pitchblende that Marie separated. All that hard work paid off when they discovered the second radioactive element, radium, half a year later. Yet, with their success in radioactivity (coined by Marie) and their hard work, Pierre’s salary from his job at the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry (EPCI), yet it was not enough to support them. So, Marie accepted a job as a physics lecturer at École Normal Supérieure and paved a path for women in science by being the first woman to work there. 

In 1903, Marie achieved an accomplishment for women, being the first female to win a Nobel Prize. The Curies received international recognition for their work and continued working, and it was all well and good until disaster struck in 1906. Pierre attempted to cross a street, but was run over and killed instantly by a horse-drawn wagon. This tragedy struck Marie, a now single mother, yet she was still motivated to continue her work and was able to resume her career in almost no time. She accepted her late husband’s professor career, but since she was a woman, it took two years for her to be entitled to full professorship, despite her global, accomplished reputation. She immersed herself in her work and pursuit of her physics doctorate, which was a lifeline for her to cope with Pierre’s untimely death, Curie mentions, “I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy”, yet she was able to continue her career. In 1909, Curie would further devote herself to the study of radioactivity, and she set up a laboratory in the Institut du Radiumthat, where she conducted biological research on radium therapy, and one year later, isolated pure radium metal, which was her goal since before Pierre passed away. As a result, she won another Nobel Prize ‘' for her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium,' according to the award committee’, an incredible feat, because there has been no other individual that had received the Nobel Prize twice. Critics claimed Marie was awarded the Nobel Prize out of pity since she was a widowed woman, but Marie ignored the criticism and focused on what truly mattered to her. Even with her success and discoveries, she never got the amount of respect or financial compensation she deserved. By this time, she learned how difficult it was to be a woman in the scientific field, and she wasn’t taken as seriously as her male peers, but she didn’t allow gender discrimination to distract her.

 Continuing her research, Curie used the theory of French physicists Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy, that claimed that radioactivity occurred through atomic nuclei losing particles. Marie used the terms disintegration and transmutation to describe radioactive processes. These terms were coined by herself- disintegration defined the induced/natural process of an atomic nucleus forming into a large to a smaller configuration through releasing radioactive particles. The term transmutation expounds the transformation of a chemical element into another, most commonly by the atomic structure changing. She used her vast knowledge of radioactivity to develop x-rays, which was a breakthrough and a revolution for the medical world and was put into use in WWI. In her loyal hardworking nature, she would continue her work until she died, which was a result of prolonged exposure to radioactive materials. After Marie died, her daughter, Iréne, in the spirit of her mother with a similar passion for science, took over with her husband. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1935 for their discovery of artificial radioactivity. 

All throughout Marie’s scientific career, she defied numerous expectations and lived through very difficult conditions. She was a woman whose unending devotion, unwavering determination and strong belief were reflected through her work and accomplishments. In her words, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” Throughout her life, she went through the obstacles of being a woman in a male-dominated field, yet she emulated her strong will to push forward for the sake of obtaining new knowledge about the world around us and the future of science. 

16 December 2021
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