FOCUS pieces honor Marie Curie

The FOCUS shawl design honors Marie Curie
The FOCUS shawl design honors Marie Curie

Marie Curie, born Marya Sklowdowska in 1867, was a Polish chemist who spent her working life in France. She was extraordinarily brilliant and won two Nobel prizes, one in physics for investigations into radioactivity (she coined that term) and another in chemistry for her discovery of the elements Polonium and Radium. She worked closely with her husband, Pierre, and without his admiration, support, and acknowledgement it is unlikely that Marie would have been as publicly successful as she was. They adored each other. Their daughter, Eve, wrote a biography of her mother, and when I read the (graphic!) description of his accidental death I wept in sympathy.

Marie came of age in a part of Poland that was under oppressive Russian rule which forced Polish identity to go underground. On top of this cultural oppression, Marie was forbidden to pursue a university education because she was a woman. Because of these obstacles Marie worked 8 years as a governess to make money so her sister could get a medical degree in Paris, with the understanding that her sister would then support Marie’s education. This is what came to pass. In Paris Marie was first in chemistry in her class of 2000 students, and second in mathematics. She earned doctorates in both subjects. Because of Pierre, she never went back to live in Poland although she was passionate about justice for Poland.

Marie was a child prodigy and taught herself to read at the age of four. Her early interest in the sciences was sparked by her father’s encouragement and the display case of scientific instruments he had in his study. When Marie later was maturing as a scientist, part of her success came from her precise use of scientific gadgets to measure radiation and the mass of very small things. She had amazing powers of concentration, and I see this ability to FOCUS as her special power. The idea of concentration is also demonstrated in the work that won her that second Nobel prize—Marie single handedly processed a ton of waste ore from uranium mining (pitchblende) to create a tiny sample of pure Radium. She boiled huge cauldrons of the crushed rock in a caustic solution and then set the results out in small dishes to evaporate. She describes the beautiful sight of the hundreds of dishes glowing with radiation in the dim twilight of their decrepit laboratory.

Marie Curie’s first breakthrough was noticing something worth looking into. Antoine Henri Becquerel first noticed a peculiar property of Uranium, that it could expose photo paper. He had been studying phosphorescence, but these new rays were different because they did not depend on the material first being exposed to light—they were coming from the material itself. But, after writing six papers on the subject in 1897, he went on to other things because he thought he had found all there was to find. It was Marie’s idea to measure the electrical charge of the rays using a device that Pierre and his brother had invented. The device took great concentration and precision to operate, and few people were as patient and dedicated as Marie, who took a week to teach herself how to use the device. Measuring the strength of radiation was key to her finding that there was something more radioactive than uranium in the pitchblende ore—Polonium and Radium. Work on the nature of radioactivity was profoundly important to the development of our understanding of matter.

The Curies became enormously famous around the world but they lamented this distraction from their work. Albert Einstein said he had never met anyone who was as unaffected by fame as Marie Curie. She was also a very unusual woman for her time in other ways. She was not interested in clothes and other traditionally feminine things, although she was dedicated to her family life. I get the sense that she was workman-like about this, just as she was with her research. She was very passionate and had a scandalous affair with a married physicist after Pierre had died. She was generally not concerned about social constraints and rules. Why shouldn’t she be with a man she loves? However, she was shamed by the press and was nearly denied her second Nobel Prize because of the scandal. This episode was so painful to her family that Eve Curie couldn’t write about it in the biography. Eve said only that gossip created a scandal, and that the gossip was incorrect.

The 1927 Solvay conference showing Marie Curie (third from left in front row) along with Einstein, Dirac, Pauli, Bohr, Schrödinger, and many more.
The 1927 Solvay conference showing Marie Curie (third from left in front row) along with Einstein, Dirac, Pauli, Bohr, Schrödinger, and many more.

Visual Sources

RED: is the color of the Polish flag. Marie was a Polish patriot. The first element that she discovered she named after her beloved country: Polonium. She regretted that the element did not prove as famous and useful as the second element she discovered—Radium—because she wanted to call the world’s attention to the plight of Poland.

FLOWERS: Marie loved flowers. Here is a picture of the Curies setting off on their honeymoon bike trek through the French countryside. Her handlebars are draped with flowers. They took several such trips over the course of their marriage. Also shown is an example of the traditional Polish craft of papercutting. Flowers are a common motif. She had flower gardens at all her houses.

Marie and Pierre seting off on their honeymoon.
Marie and Pierre setting off on their honeymoon.
An example of the traditional Polish papercut style.
An example of the traditional Polish papercut style.




















RADIUM: Soon after discovering and isolating radium, uses were found for the element. The most promising was its use in cancer treatment. It was quickly discovered that radium kills cells, and it was used to kill tumor cells. For some reason it took a while for the scientists who worked with radioactive materials to notice their effects on their own health. Radiation exposure made Pierre sick and Marie died from disorders related to exposure. Here is a Kossel diagram of the radium atom showing the arrangement of electrons.

Radium and its electrons.
Radium and its electrons.






















PERIODIC TABLE: the scarf and shawl designs I made show the modern version of the Periodic Table of the Elements with question marks in the spaces of the elements which had not been discovered when Marie was working. The Periodic Table has changed over the years and it started out as little more than a list of elements arranged in groups with some of their distinguishing characteristics. I found an example of what it looked like in 1902. The Curies announced their discovery of Radium in 1898.

Brauner's Periodic Table from 1902.
Brauner’s Periodic Table from 1902 found on this website.


CHEMIST’S EVAPORATION DISH: this bit of equipment likely has not changed since the time of the alchemists. I ordered one from a scientific equipment company because I wanted to hold one in my hand. I also scanned this dish for the glowing “dots” in the shawl and scarf designs. A French stamp dedicated to Marie Curie also uses the image of the glowing dish. It is a potent object.

Stamp showing chemist's evaporation dish.
Stamp showing chemist’s evaporation dish.
The chemist’s dish I used for the FOCUS images.




Here is Mrs. Jones wearing the FOCUS scarf.