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Obsessive genius : the inner world of Marie Curie

by Barbara Goldsmith

  Print book : Biography  |  1st ed

Curie primarily as mother, then as scientist    (2012-06-22)


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by vleighton

  This text is a well-written, current biography of the famed scientist Marie Curie. Goldsmith writes as a woman trying to investigate how Curie balanced traditional female roles (mother, wife) with her life as a scientist, so the science takes a bit of a backseat to social relations. One edition of the book is designed for book clubs, with prompting questions in the back.

  Basically, Goldsmith protrays Curie as a fairly neglectful mother. For her, science came first. Fortunately for her children, Curie's mother and father-in-law were understanding and willing to step in and raise the children.

  The book opens with Marie's girlhood in Poland as Maria Skłodowska. Her parents were Polish patriots in the part of Poland under Russian control. The Russians would have none of Polish cultural education, so her parents had to maintain the culture in a clandestine fashion. As a late teen, she was the governess for a wealthy family, and when she fell in love with the eldest son, she was dismissed.

  Determined, she moved to France where she could pursue a university degree. Pierre was a genial son of a moderately respectable and well-to-do family. He had a flair for invention, and often in their partnership, he would solve practical problems with the equipment while Marie was the primary driver of the theoretical and scientific parts of their projects. The French at the time supported Polish nationalism, so Curie enjoyed French sympathy in part due to her Polish nationality.

  One aspect of Curie's story that I found especially interesting was that a number of other physicists of the day, especially Ernest Rutherford, supported women's rights, in contrast to the prevailing strong sexism in that society. Rutherford assisted in getting supplies and access to publications for Curie in part because he wanted to promote the cause of women. When the Curies and Becquerel won the Nobel Prize in Physics, Marie was not allowed to speak. But that refusal then prompted both Pierre and Becquerel to praise her work in their speeches. Because of her fame as a scientist, she became a public figure.

  One thing about Marie Curie was her amazing tolerance for radiation. She lived for decades after Pierre and had to do a great deal of heavy work in order to refine and isolate radioactive elements. After Pierre's death, she scandalized polite society by having a sexual relationship with a married former student of her husband's.

  Marie was a strong-willed woman who bravely defied the conventions and expectations of her day. This book focuses more on her personal life than on the details of her scientific breakthroughs, but it has those also.

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