anagnori

The Marvelous Marie Curie by Algis Valiunas

In biography, Europe, history of science, research, science, sociology on September 12, 2013 at 14:34

From: The Marvelous Marie Curie by Algis Valiunas, The New Atlantis, http://www.thenewatlantis.com

Marie Curie (1867–1934) is not only the most important woman scientist ever; she is arguably the most important scientist all told since Darwin. Einstein? In theoretical brilliance he outshone her — but her breakthroughs, by Einstein’s own account, made his possible. She took part in the discovery of radioactivity, a term she coined; she identified it as an atomic property of certain elements. When scoffers challenged these discoveries, she meticulously determined the atomic weight of the radioactive element she had revealed to the world, radium, and thereby placed her work beyond serious doubt. Yet many male scientists of her day belittled her achievement, even denied her competence. Her husband, Pierre Curie, did the real work, they insisted, while she just went along for the wifely ride. Chauvinist condescension of this order would seem to qualify Marie Curie as belle idéale of women’s studies, icon for the perennially aggrieved. But such distinction better suits an Aphra Behn or Artemisia Gentileschi than it does a Jane Austen or Marie Curie. Genuine greatness deserves only the most gracious estate, not an academic ghetto, however fashionable and well-appointed.

Yet the fact remains: much of the interest in Madame Curie stems from her having been a woman in the man’s world of physics and chemistry. The interest naturally increases as women claim their place in that world; with this interest comes anger, sometimes righteous, sometimes self-righteous, that difficulties should still stand in the way. A president of Harvard can get it in the neck for suggesting that women don’t have the almost maniacal resolve it takes to become first-rate scientific researchers — that they are prone to distraction by such career-killers as motherhood. So Marie Curie’s singularity cannot but be enveloped in the sociology of science, which is to say these days, feminist politics.

The sociology is important, as long as one remembers the singularity. For Marie Curie did have the almost maniacal resolve to do great scientific work. The work mattered as much to her as it does to most any outstanding scientist; yet can one really say it was everything? She passionately loved her husband and, after his premature death, loved another scientist of immense talent, perhaps of genius; she had the highest patriotic feeling for her native Poland and her adopted France, and risked her life in wartime; she raised two daughters, one, Irène, a Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry, the other, Ève, an accomplished writer, most notably as her mother’s biographer.

Read the essay

Reposted with permission from: The New Atlantis

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: