Madame Marie Curie is well known as the discoverer of the elements radium and polonium. She is far less well-known for being a woman of elemental passions.
Marie arrived in France as a penniless Polish student and went on to become one of the greatest scientists of all time. She was awarded two Nobel prizes, discovered two chemical elements, essentially invented the concept of radioactivity and founded a scientific dynasty: her daughter Irene and son-in-law Frederic Joliot-Curie themselves shared a Nobel prize in the Thirties. (Marie was the first – and Irene only the second – woman to win the Nobel prize.)
Yet Madame Curie’s passions were not confined to her professional and scientific life. In 1910, about four years after her husband, Pierre, died in a road accident, the 43-year-old widow embarked on a highly charged love affair with Paul Langevin, a scientist five years her junior. The lovers even rented a flat near the Sorbonne where they could meet in secret.
There was a drawback. Langevin was a married man and the father of four children. Langevin’s wife discovered the love letters that Marie had written to him and dished the dirt to the Parisian equivalent of US Weekly.
Publication of the letters scandalized France. It was clearly not just a physical infatuation. Marie was thinking in terms of marriage and had written to her lover urging him to divorce his wife and marry her, although that would scarcely have been any less shocking at the time. Moreover, Paul Langevin had clearly not completely given up on his own marriage: his wife bore their fourth child just before he embarked on the affair with Marie.
After the news broke, the Swedish Academy of Sciences tried to dissuade her from coming to Stockholm to receive her Nobel prize so that the adulteress would not shake hands with the Swedish king. Paul Langevin felt honor-bound to fight a duel against the journalist who wrote the expose. He arranged a legal separation from his wife, but despite Marie’s urgings, refused to seek a divorce. Her reputation was not completely restored until her heroic efforts to help wounded French soldiers during the First World War.
When Svante Arrhenius, a member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, wrote to her after the story of her love affair broke, she responded briskly: “The prize has been awarded for the discovery of radium and polonium. I believe that there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life. I cannot accept … that the appreciation of the value of scientific work should be influenced by libel and slander concerning private life.”
Science is not done by cold, logically correct, calculating machines. It is an intensely human activity, just as the arts are. Science requires inspiration and imagination, which means that personality, passion, and style are important. Marie Curie had all three in abundance. She was a truly Amazing Girl.
- Marie Curie (ttandm4h.wordpress.com)