On Madame Curie

I recently finished reading Madame Curie – A Biography by Eve Curie – translated by Vincent Sheen. While I had some exposure to Madam Curie from my studies, this book further elevated my admiration for her not just as a scientist but as a visionary and a humanitarian at large.

Below are selected highlights from this masterpiece:

On the geopolitical environment Marie was born into:

Since then everything had been done to enforce the obedience of a Poland that refused to die…But in the other camp resistance was quick to organize. Disastrous experience had proved to the Poles that they had no chance of reconquering their liberty by force, at least for the moment. Their task was, therefore, to wait—and to thwart the dangers of those who wait, cowardice and discouragement. The battle, therefore, had changed ground. Its heroes were no longer those warriors armed with scythes who charged the Cossacks and died saying (like the celebrated Louis Narbutt): “What happiness to die for my country!” The new heroes were the intellectuals, the artists, priests, schoolteachers—those upon whom the mind of the new generation depended. Their courage consisted in forcing themselves to be hypocrites, and in supporting any humiliation rather than lose the places in which the Tsar still tolerated them—and from which they could secretly influence Polish youth, guide their compatriots.

On the early tragedies in her life:

Deprived of her mother’s tenderness and the protection of her eldest sister, the child grew older, without once complaining, in partial abandonment. She was proud but she was not resigned. And when she knelt in the Catholic church where she was used to going with her mother, she experienced the secret stir of revolt within her. She no longer invoked with the same love that God who had unjustly inflicted such terrible blows, who had slain what was gay or fanciful or sweet around her.

On her husband, Pierre:

Thus his (Pierre) was a strange and almost incredible adventure, for it mixed the essential aspiration of his mind into the movement of his heart. He felt himself drawn toward Marie by an impulse of love and at the same time by the highest necessity. He was even ready to sacrifice what people call happiness to another happiness known to him alone. He made Marie a proposal which at first seems fantastic, which might pass for a ruse or an approach, but which was characteristic of his nature. If Marie had no love for him, he asked, could she resolve upon a purely friendly arrangement at least, and work with him “in an apartment in the Rue Mouffetard, with windows giving on a garden, an apartment which could be divided into two independent parts?”

On their work together:

Let this certainty suffice for our curiosity and admiration. Let us not attempt to separate these creatures full of love, whose handwriting alternates and combines in the working notebooks covered with formulae, these creatures who were to sign nearly all their scientific publications together. They were to write “We found” and “We observed”; and when they were constrained by fact to distinguish between their parts, they were to employ this moving locution…”one of us”…

On celebrity aversion and humility:

The aversion which celebrity inspired in the Curies had still Other sources besides their passion for work or their fright at the loss of time. With Pierre, who was naturally detached, the attack of popularity encountered the resistance of principles he had always held. He hated hierarchies and classifications. He found it absurd that there should be “firsts” in a class, and the decorations which grown persons coveted seemed to him as superfluous as the medals awarded children in school. This attitude, which had made him refuse the Legion of Honor, was equally his in the realm of science. He was devoid of all spirit of competition, and in the “race for discoveries” he was able to endure being beaten by his colleagues without annoyance. “What difference does it make if I didn’t publish such-and-such a work,” he had the habit of saying, “since somebody else has published it ? This almost inhuman indifference had had a deep influence on Marie. But when she fled before the evidences of admiration it was not in order to imitate her husband and not to obey him. The war against fame was not a principle with her: it was an instinct. An irresistible timidity, a painful shrinking congealed her as soon as curious glances were fastened upon her, and even provoked disturbances which brought on dizziness and physical discomfort.

On opening the Insitut du Radium and advancing science:

This victory came upon its heroine when she was no longer either young or strong, and when she had lost her happiness. What did it matter, since she was surrounded by fresh forces. since enthusiastic scientists were at hand to aid her in the struggle? No, it was not too late. The glaziers were singing and whistling on every floor of the little white building. Above the entrance could already be read these words, cut into the stone: Institut du Radium, Pavillon Curie. Before these sturdy walls and this exalting inscription Marie evoked the words of Pasteur: If conquests useful to humanity touch your heart, if you stand amazed before the surprising effects of electric telegraphy, the daguerreotype, anesthesia and so many other admirable discoveries: if you are jealous of the part your country can claim in the further flowering of these wonders—take an interest, I urge upon you, in those holy dwellings to which the expressive name of laboratories is given. Ask that they be multiplied and adorned. They are the temples of the future, of wealth and well-being. It is there that humanity grows bigger, strengthens and betters itself. It learns there to read in the works of nature, works of progress and universal harmony, whereas its own works are too often those of barbarity, fanaticism and destruction.

On true scientific research:

A large number of my friends affirm, not without valid reasons, that if Pierre Curie and I had guaranteed our rights, we should have acquired the financial means necessary to the creation of a satisfactory radium institute, without encountering the obstacles which were a handicap to both of us, and which are still a handicap for me. Nevertheless, I am still convinced that we were right. Humanity certainly needs practical men, who get the most out of their work, and, without forgetting the general good, safeguard their own interests. But humanity also needs dreamers, for whom the disinterested development of an enterprise is so captivating that it becomes impossible for them to devote their care to their own material profit. Without the slightest doubt, these dreamers do not deserve wealth, because they do not desire it. Even so, a well-organized society should assure to such workers the efficient means of accomplishing their task, in a life freed from material care and freely consecrated to research.

On her final moments:

Her last moments revealed the strength, the terrible resistance, of a creature whose fragility was only apparent, of her robust heart, trapped in a body from which all heat was departing, which continued to beat tirelessly, implacably…The young scientists sobbed before the inert apparatus at the Radium Institute. Georges Fournier, one of Marie’s favorite Students, wrote: “We have lost everything.”

A must read!

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