WHOSE MARIE CURIE?
MENTIONED IN OR CONSULTED FOR THIS ESSAY:
Eve Curie, Madame Curie. 1937. De Capo, 2001.
Marie Curie, "Autobiographical Notes," Pierre Curie. 1923. Dover Press, 1963.
Barbara Goldsmith, Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie. Norton, 2004.
Madame Curie. Dir. Mervyn LeRoy. Perf. Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. 1944.
Videocassette. Warner Bros. Home Video, 1992.
Susan Quinn, Marie Curie: A Life. Perseus Books, 1995.
Adrienne Rich,"Power," The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974-1977. Norton, 1978. 3.
"You want a piece of me?" Marie Curie stands in front of a full-length mirror and taps at the breastbone beneath her faded black dress. She sounds angry, but when her fingers strike, they do so gently. "You want a piece of me?"
"Yes we do," the world answers, and takes a step closer...
The story of the Polish born scientist who adopted France as her home and who won two Nobel Prizes, one in Physics and one in Chemistry, continues to enjoy considerable cultural relevance. Many countries large and small have issued stamps commemorating her legend in an attempt to reflect the glow of her laboratory work onto their own scientific ventures. Too many chapter books fill too many bookshelves in grade school classrooms to deny her central position as a role model for children, alongside Thomas Alva Edison and Sojourner Truth. She was the subject of a 1943 pedagogical melodrama, Madame Curie, starring Hollywood's hottest wartime couple, Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, fresh off the blockbuster success of their most famous picture, Mrs. Miniver. Adrienne Rich makes Curie the center of a 1974 poem, "Power," and distills Curie's life and its meaning for second wave feminists in the closing lines, "She died..../ denying/ her wounds came from the same source as her power."
The feminists have a valid claim on Curie's life: Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Science in 1903 (it is worth mentioning that this was only the third year the prize was awarded), and she won a second in 1911, making her the only woman scientist to win two Nobel Prizes. Gender discrimination played at least as decisive a role as her prickly personality in her being repeatedly denied admission to the Academy of Sciences, the premier French scientific association. And it was because she was a woman that people early on discounted her contribution to the work that earned the Nobel for Marie, her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel. This made the second Nobel, awarded in 1911 to Marie alone, such an affirmation. She associated with the English suffragette Hertha Ayrton, George Eliot's model for Mirah in Daniel Deronda, and Curie was promoted in America by Missy Meloney, editor of the popular woman's magazine The Delineator. When she died of abnormal aplastic anemia in 1934, Curie had accomplished as much as any man of science in her time.
That said, my ongoing fascination with Curie, which began with a third grade book report, has less to do with gender and more with the story of how she understood the world. Her insights into nuclear structure upended an atomic orthodoxy in place since the time of the Greeks, and at her best she was guided by little more than her intuition: when a mineral sample gave off more radioactivity than could be explained by its known elemental components, she leapt to the radical conclusion that some previously undiscovered element lay behind the emission. In the absence of any tangible evidence, she worked to find this element for four years under ridiculously difficult conditions, suffering physical injury and mental exhaustion. In the end, though, she found the previously unseen force that made her meters move, and her initial surmise was validated by the discovery of radium. It is this decision, to chase motion back towards what made it move, that embodies Curie's accomplishment, and which makes her so appealing to me. I have been so interested in her for so long that it seems natural to locate her ghost very near the center of a novel I am writing; her presence lets me talk about things that would otherwise remain unseen (if a ghost, then an afterlife; then a soul; then a Godhead of some kind). When I first read about Curie, I was a preteen convinced that the small boulders, made of concrete left over after pouring the foundations for all the ranch houses in my neighborhood and scattered broadside in the woods, concealed mysterious Indian treasures. If only I could secret enough lemon juice from the refrigerator without my mother noticing, I could melt down those rocks to reveal arrowheads, feathered head-dresses, and early drafts of the Constitution of the Iroquois Nations. Curie taught me that the world is powered by secrets buried under a thick layer of accepted truth, suspicion, and disinterest. If these layers are burned away, a whole other order of reality will be found, as powerful as the previously overlooked inner life of the atom.
I am of course not the only one who looked to Curie's life as a rationale for his own: Hollywood used Marie's romance with Pierre, and his unfortunate death under the wheels of a horse-drawn delivery wagon, to bookend a presentation of the new science of radioactivity. The nucleus of this story is the rejection of accreted European wisdom, an appeal to the American drive to do your own thing in the face of overwhelming apathy, and a belief that the singular visionary can bring us to see things we might otherwise ignore. The movie also glowed with a strange enthusiasm for radioactivity and its hidden power, something that in retrospect has an ironic air, coming as the movie did two years before our assault on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The movie Madame Curie took its title and the loosest of narrative contours from Eve Curie's biographic valorization of her mother. Unlike the movie, which condenses maybe ten years of Marie's life into two hours, Eve covers the whole of Marie's 67 years. Eve Curie's book is the first biography of the scientist to be published, and as such it is natural that it seeks to document the full span of her mother's life. But the unusual haste with which Eve brought the book forth (complete and published in France and translated into English within three years of Marie's death in 1934) owes to a number of competing factors. The first of these is perhaps the Curie family's sensitivity over how the scientist should be portrayed, as Eve suggests when she confessed to later biographer Susan Quinn that she wrote so fast because she was "afraid that someone else would do it first and not get it right." And there is a strangely rehabilitative tone to Eve's book, especially the later sections after Pierre's death.
Eve's skips over a particularly difficult period in Marie's life: a liaison with her dead husband's protégé, Jean Langevin, an affair that led to at least five duels being fought to uphold Marie's honor. Of this four year period in Marie's life, Eve gives one paragraph that is strikingly opaque in a book otherwise deeply concerned with being clear about whys and wherefores:
It is not for me to judge those who gave the signal for the attack, or to say with what despair and often with what tragic clumsiness Marie floundered. Let us leave in peace those journalists who had the courage to insult a haunted woman, pestered by anonymous letters, publicly threatened with violence, with her life itself in danger. Some among those men came to ask her pardon later on, with words of repentance and with tears.... But the crime was committed: Marie had been led to the brink of suicide and of madness, and, her physical strength forsaking her, she had been brought down by a very grave illness. (279-80)
From there, Eve rushes forward into outlining her mother's heroic efforts on behalf of the French during the First World War: with the bulk of Marie's direct contribution to the development of nuclear physics behind her, she developed, equipped, and manned a series of mobile x-ray stations, bolted into old cars and run off the power of the car's battery when necessary (another of my childhood fantasies drawn from the spell Marie's story held me under, shared with an amused barber during the height of the Oil Embargo: I would invent a car that ran on salt, because what is more common to a grade schooler than salt?). Marie's practical efforts saved literally hundreds of thousands of French soldiers at the front from unnecessary amputations and death. Eve wants to remind her readers of Marie's gift to the Republic that had, a decade before, savaged her in the Press. The later sections of Eve's biography pick up on Marie's denial of material comfort forged over four years of working in a "miserable old shed" to discover and isolate radium. Eve plucks our sympathy to play a two part melody: admiration and pity, when she tells us that Marie quite literally worked blind for the last four years of her life, something no one outside of Marie's small circle of intimates knew at the time.
It is the earliest sections, though, that I found the most thrilling, the richest in incident and adventure: the story of the child prodigy overlooked by her Polish family who expected nothing less than excellence, the story of Marie's passionate love for Poland, a love suppressed by the Russian authorities. It was the same love of country that led Marie to tutor illiterate village children between the lessons she delivered as a governess, and to take part in the "Flying University," an underground system of post-secondary education. Both impulses grew from a Polish version of Comptean positivism which claimed Poland would rise again when Her people were too educated to be repressed. The young Marie was a woman of ebullient spirits and many interests: scientific, poetic, political, and romantic. These interests disappeared when Marie found her calling in the laboratories of the Sorbonne, but nonetheless Eve makes a thrilling case for the rejection of society's claim that success requires a single-minded focus.
This unspun thread also seems to have held a fascination for Eve, a woman who drifted from one interest to another aimlessly all the days of her mother's life. Eve disappointed Marie when she did not follow her mother into chemistry like her older sister Irene, instead squandering an early talent in music to become a fashion plate and dilettante, or so she tells it. The book in this way carries a message from Eve to her mother: you too wandered in the desert, you too took lovers and loved dancing. Eve wants, it seems, for Marie to recognize that she shared the same struggles that made her mother's early life such a despairing challenge.
Eve's need to rehabilitate her mother's name and to establish her as heroic is easiest to understand when you read Susan Quinn's 1991 biography, Marie Curie: A Life. Quinn expands on the affair with Langevin so that Eve's one reticent paragraph becomes seventy-five pages of emotional torture for Marie. Quinn does this for a couple reasons, I think: first, one of the larger projects of her book is to provide a social history of Curie's times. In fact, another lengthy section of her Life is a presentation of gender attitudes in turn-of-the-century Paris, where Curie went to study in 1891. The culture Marie found there is deeply conflicted; for example, the term "etudiante" meant both female students at the Sorbonne and the prostitutes who lived with and cooked meals for men who studied at the University. Quinn leverages this understanding of the gender dynamic to underscore some of Marie's difficulties in having her work recognized. Alongside very lucid and very helpful explanations of the science behind Marie's discoveries, Quinn shows in gender discrimination another powerful force operating around Marie Curie, a force as powerful and as abiding as the atomic bonds at the center of the atom.
The other reason I think she focuses so much on this chapter of Marie's life is more speculative, but rests on the same premises: the shitstorm of personal and political pressures the affair with Langevin caused led Marie to retreat from the personal and into a twenty-four hour public self. When the Nobel Prize committee backhandedly criticized Marie's personal life and suggested that they would not award the Nobel Prize to a woman who behaved the way the French press asserted Marie had, she wrote back, "The prize has been awarded for the discovery of Radium and Polonium. I believe there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life" (328). This exchange in 1911 signals a shift in the way Marie lived, a change that would dominate the rest of her life.
After the death of Pierre, Eve tells us her mother prohibited her family or friends from ever mentioning Pierre's name again. Quinn reproduces pages from Marie's diary of mourning where she seems to speak of nothing but Pierre, but she never shared those feelings. And from 1911 onward, these personal notes, of prohibited or submerged emotion, are absent from Marie's life story. The rest of her days find her recasting her private self into a recognizable public mold. Her self-sacrifice in the service of France during World War I is of a piece with Marie's two trips to the United States in the twenties to raise money from private donations to buy two grams of radium she could not blackmail the French Government into buying for her. It is for those American trips that Marie published the only autobiographical writings she ever made (1923), and it is in those pages that much of her legacy was born, as Curie self-consciously links her poverty when discovering radium at the turn of the century to the relative lack of funding the Curie Institute faced. The private woman and all her personal struggles and sacrifices are subsumed into the scientific work she wished to see carried on in her name. In fact, the "private woman" by then existed only when necessary to advance the very public aims of her Institute. If Adrienne Rich and other feminists are invested in the project of recovering powerful women in history, Quinn restores the history to the story of at least one of them, and adds up the hefty cost at least one female pioneer paid.
Quinn's book never directly censures Curie for her strategic retreat into the soft-focus spotlight, though she does chastise her for the deliberate misrepresentations that result. What Quinn and her readers are left with is the hollow outline of a woman, and the public outcry that drove her away. What remains is the woman society has made, one who promotes a selfless image of herself while she acquires real estate in Paris and the French countryside, one whose cries of being underfunded are loud enough that they detract funding from other less public but equally valid research projects.
Barbara Goldsmith's 2004 biography, Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie, is the strangest of the lot, if only because of the yawning gulf between what its title promises and what the book delivers. Her book doesn't shed much new light on, and doesn't even seem all that interested in Curie's inner life. Instead, she, like Quinn, focuses most closely on those four years in "the miserable old shed" where the Curies isolated radium, and spins from there to present a wide-reaching and very readable take on the emerging science of nuclear physics. Her book is regularly punctuated by brief portraits of the other personalities around Marie and Pierre who contributed to the development of radiological inquiry. The passage below, about Paul Rutherford, who would go on to develop the most accurate model of the atom to come out of Curie's work, is illustrative of Goldsmith's method:
As Manya Sklowdowska [the young Marie Curie] shyly gave her father a high school medal for best pupil of 1883, a boy of eleven, Ernest Rutherford, stood on the porch of a New Zealand farmhouse while a thunderstorm approached. His father, awakened by the storm, went downstairs to join his son. What was he doing? Ernest replied that he had figured out by counting the seconds between the lightning flash and the thunderclap, and allowing one second for the sound to travel 400 yards, he could tell how close they were to the storm's center. Until then Ernest, one of twelve children of a potato farmer, had like Pierre Curie been considered slow. Home-schooled, at eleven he could read but not write. At twelve, he was lucky enough to find the first of a series of gifted teachers who inspired him to learn. When he received his first full scholarship, he told his mother, "I've dug my last potato." (80)
These portraits read well alongside those Eve presents in her biography. It was not only Marie who was touched by an unusual early life.
Goldsmith's book is not bounded by Curie's life, but instead goes beyond it to look at the work that was done after Curie's death, and ties it all into a thrilling narrative set against the backdrop of the two World Wars and a changing European culture. Goldsmith's recurrent interest in the Solvay Conferences, held annually starting in 1911, allows her to bring to her stage such luminous figures as Lise Meitner, the German born scientist who worked on armaments and poison gas for the Germans during World War I only to find herself fleeing Hitler's Germany for Norway in the middle of the night. The grandchild of a Jew, the Nazis considered her a Jew despite her parents' conversion to Protestantism. Meitner was stripped of her funding, her University post, and her laboratory, and for the rest of the Nazi regime could not publish work under her own name, instead relying upon the indulgence and good names of more ethnically-appropriate peers. Goldsmith makes her Marie's opposite number, another fiercely driven woman scientist, and one who suffered a comeuppance to make the Greek tragedians envious.
For Goldsmith, Curie was one of a secret cabal of people who changed the way we see the world. Curie did not work alone on her discoveries, and Goldsmith's presentation of the science makes it clear that the scientific work was a fiercely competitive race, one where Marie was only sometimes the winner. This does nothing to tarnish the luster of Curie's accomplishments, but instead inspires the reader to imagine a world where science was made from equal parts insight and ego, a world that now seems lost in the team-oriented science industry. Perhaps Curie's generation, along with the one that immediately followed it (those scientists who were instrumental in the Manhattan Project), were the last whose names meant something by themselves, the last to be able to see their way clearly enough to discover a new world with their own eyes, instead of with electronic eyes paid for by big business and big military interests.
It is this fiercely individual streak that first attracted me to Curie when I was a grade schooler. But, having read these books, especially Quinn's, with its deliberate fumbling to find the thread in Curie's life after 1911, it's hard to still subscribe to or admire this single-mindedness. Now, it seems a bit more like a cautionary tale than an inspiration; whatever Goldsmith wants to assert about that generation of scientists, the model for this kind of work seems outdated. I am still struck by Marie's dedication to her work in isolating radium. There is something appealing in that belief that there is something there, even if you don't know what you are looking for. Maybe it's this impulse that motivates my own desire to use Curie in my novel without being quite sure why or what I hope to find.
But there is also a strong charm to the Marie who boarded a train in Warsaw at 19 to study in Paris and who never emerged again: the political, idealistic Marie who loved her country and felt that the best way to serve it was to work on herself, the Marie who loved to dance and talk over her dreams with her friends. I like to think of this as the "undergrad Marie," and I for one find comfort in the fact that Marie Curie too went through this period. It makes me feel sometimes that my own years in the wilderness haven't been a complete waste.