The difficult mother of a thousand suns

Obsessive Genius - Before the Fall-Out

March 31, 2006

It is not generally realised that were it not for the warmth provided by the radioactive decay of the uranium and thorium ores in the earth's crust, our planet would have evolved into a spherical rock as cold and lifeless as the moon. Radioactivity, then, is important for life, and not just for bombs and cancer treatment. What is surprising is that radioactivity was unknown to science until as late as halfway through the final decade of the 19th century. The initiating event took place in 1896 when Henri Becquerel found that uranium salts spontaneously emitted penetrating rays that fogged unwrapped photographic plates. He had discovered radioactivity.

Marie Curie, newly wed to Pierre, decided that with her husband's help she would make a study of "Becquerel rays", her PhD topic at the Sorbonne.

Marie and Pierre soon found that thorium was also spontaneously radioactive and that the uranium ore, pitchblende, was far more radioactive than could be explained by the uranium it contained. Clearly other radioactive elements existed within pitchblende and it was for the discovery of these, which they named polonium and radium, that the Curies shared with Becquerel the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics. The atomic age was launched.

The Curies had two daughters, Ir ne and Eve, born in 1897 and 1904 respectively, but tragically Pierre was run over and killed by a dray in 1906. Thereafter, Marie had to combine bringing up a family on her own while continuing her research. In 1911, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and remains today the only woman to have become a double Nobel laureate. It was 24 years before another woman was awarded a Nobel prize and the recipient was Curie's daughter, Ir ne Joliot-Curie, who in 1935 shared the physics prize with her husband, Jean Frederic, for their discovery of artificial radioactivity. Irene and Frederic's daughter, Hel ne Langevin-Joliot, was also a distinguished nuclear scientist who helped create the first atomic pile in France. Eve's husband, Henri Labouisse, was director of the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965. Marie Curie was not only an amazingly successful scientist; she and Pierre had created a dynasty.

Barbara Goldsmith's Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie is a short, well-written, indeed brilliant, biography. The author develops the thesis that the hardships, traumas and bereavements of Curie's childhood and early adulthood had a profound influence on her work, character and relationships with those closest to her. Goldsmith makes no bones about the fact that Curie had a "difficult" personality. Einstein once wrote of her:

"Madame Curie is highly intelligent but has the soul of a herring, which means that she is poor when it comes to the art of either joy or pain".

Goldsmith describes well how 1911 was a particularly difficult year for Curie. She attended that year's Solvay Conference in Brussels but quarrelled with other distinguished delegates over the question of the preferred location for the International Radium Standard. While at the conference, Curie received notification that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Much less welcome news was that love letters she had written to the distinguished physicist Paul Langevin had fallen into the hands of his wife, Jeanne, who had passed some of them to the press. It became a cause célèbre . Curie was accused in the newspapers of being a home-wrecker, a dissolute woman and a Polish temptress. There was talk of stolen letters and of blackmail, and Langevin challenged Gustave Tery, a right-wing journalist, to a duel. It was all very undignified. The Swedish Nobel authorities wrote to Curie suggesting that in view of the scandal she should not travel to Sweden to receive her prize, but she ignored this request.

To restore the balance, Goldsmith pays handsome tribute to Curie's work during the First World War, when she initiated the formation of mobile X-ray units to operate in front-line field hospitals. Later she was joined by Ir ne; together they trained many operators and numerous units were formed. By the end of hostilities, more than a million wounded soldiers had benefited from X-ray examinations.

Diana Preston's Before the Fall-Out is much broader in scope and is twice the length of Goldsmith's book. Although Preston gives a good account of Curie's achievements, the book is in essence a general history of atomic energy from its beginnings to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

This is a well-trodden path, many excellent histories of this period already exist, and perhaps in recognition of this Preston adopts what could be termed a novelistic device to tell her story.

She creates two parallel threads: one is the history of atomic energy and the other the history of Hiroshima itself, starting in 1894 when the city became the temporary capital of Japan during the Chinese-Japanese war. The climax comes, of course, when the two threads become one on that fateful day, August 6, 1945.

In spite of the competition from other accounts of the period, Preston's book can be thoroughly recommended. The author, a former head of the public relations department at the UKAtomic Energy Authority, clearly has a considerable knowledge of atomic history, and the book is beautifully written and well organised. Both Goldsmith's and Preston's books can be read and enjoyed by non-scientific readers, though I would advise them to read Goldsmith's book first.

Preston benefited greatly from conversations with two Nobel laureates who were part of the Manhattan Project, Hans Bethe and Joseph Rotblat, the founder of the Pugwash movement. Sadly, both these distinguished scientists have since died; Bethe in July last year and Rotblat in August. Preston came along just in time.

What emerges very strongly from both books is that Marie Curie and her family were always strong advocates of the peaceful applications of nuclear power. It is a tragic irony that the Curies' first discovery, polonium, would comprise, with beryllium, the neutron source that detonated the atomic bombs.

Jack Harris is vice-chairman of British Pugwash and a fellow of the Royal Society. He spent 35 years working in Britain's civil nuclear power industry.

Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie

Author - Barbara Goldsmith
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 255
Price - £14.99 and £8.99
ISBN - 0 297 84767 8 and 0 7538 1899 X

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