THE WOMAN WHO EVEN TODAY IN THE 21ST CENTURY RADIATES INSPIRATION
St. Xavier's College (Autonomous),
Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
Are you a girl in science looking for inspiration? Well, look no more! There's no better example than the one and only Marie Sklodowska-Curie, widely known as Madame Curie. Madame Curie's life and her research remain just as fascinating even today, in the 21st century, as it was a hundred years ago. But what makes Madame Curie such an essential part of science today? Let's dive back to the 19th century to understand this.
Maria Sklodowska, now known as Marie Curie, a Polish-French Physicist, and Chemist, was born in Warsaw, Poland, on November 7, 1867. She had four other siblings and was the youngest and a very bright student. Her parents were both teachers. Her father, Wladyslaw Sklodowska, would teach Marie and her siblings' physics and math. Since Poland at the time was occupied by the Russian Empire, these subjects were taken away from the Polish curriculum. Marie's family suffered through a lot of financial issues because of which her family at the time would even host student boarders.
There's absolutely no doubt that Madame Curie was a prodigy, but during the time, women back in Poland were denied education. Therefore, Marie enrolled herself in an institution called "flying university." This was a secret institution that would provide education to the youth there. She graduated at 15! Now, just like any other student, Marie, too, went through many difficulties because of her family's financial struggles, career struggles, etc., including taking a break and spending a year in the countryside along with her brothers because of depression. She later worked as a children's tutor for two years and a governess for three years after, in order to earn better. She helped as many kids as she could during the time, even while working as a governess. Madame Curie then moved to Paris in 1891 and studied at Sorbonne. Even with many financial struggles and no proper meals, Marie earned her Master's Degree in Physics and Mathematics in 1893.
Later, she went on to work on her research based on magnetic properties and the chemical composition of steel, and that's when she met the love of her life, Pierre Curie. They shared a lab, continued working together, and remain the most inspirational duo in science even today. They eventually fell in love and married later, but she missed her native and decided to go back. Going back, it was difficult for Marie in Poland as women there weren't given any priority in academics, and therefore she returned to Paris. She came across Henri Becquerel's research and was captivated by it. She came to the realization that uranium would continuously emit some radiation. She experimented to determine the strength of the rays, in which she used two metals, coated one of them with uranium salts, and measured the strength of the rays using the instruments that Pierre had invented. She later understood that uranium compounds would also emit radiation irrespective of the physical and chemical changes in the atmosphere. The radiation strength depended solely on the quantity of the compound present. Curie continued researching and testing other compounds, including pitchblende ( uranium-rich ore ), and found that pitchblende would emit rays with no uranium present. Even stronger than uranium! This further lead her to believe that there might be other elements such as uranium and that it wasn't the only one. In 1898, Madame Curie discovered two new elements- Polonium, named after her native, and Radium, the Latin word for ray. She named this concept "radioactivity."
In 1903, Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel were up for a Nobel in Physics. Marie was left behind because the nominating committee refused to include a woman as a Nobel Laureate. Pierre, however, stood by Marie and objected against this and defended her, pointing out how it was her original research. Alas, the committee agreed, and the Nobel in Physics was divided among the three. This makes Madame Curie the first woman ever to win a Nobel. Later, in 1906, her husband, Pierre Curie, died in an awful accident that broke Marie, and so she threw herself into her research. She went on to fill Pierre's position and became the first-ever female professor at Sorbonne. In 1911, Madame Curie was presented with a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, making her the only person to date to win two Nobels in two different sciences. How inspiring!
She carried on her research on radioactivity and moved it to the Radium Institute in 1914 after the Austrian government employed her as she needed bigger space and a proper radioactivity research lab. After few more years of her working on this, Marie started experiencing health issues and died in 1934 of bone marrow disease caused due to extensive radiation exposure. Even today, her remains remain radioactive and are kept in a lead-lined coffin to keep the radiation confined.
Madame Curie's astonishing research led to the advancement of science that, at the time, was beyond anything anyone could imagine! Her research has helped develop numerous fields in science, including medicine, nuclear physics, and oncology. This obviously did not come easy for her. She overcame family struggles, societal boundaries, health issues, and the loss of loved ones to make this happen. Her research was also the ultimate reason for her death, but it remains to be worth it because she died a hero. This is what makes Madame Curie the most significant female scientist in history and her legacy, extraordinary! So, if someone tells you, yes you, that women aren't well suited for science, don't listen; they couldn't be more wrong.