Sunday, January 22, 2012

Curie and the Prize

Marie Curie is the only person to receive a Nobel Prize in two distinct scientific disciplines.  In 1903 she was awarded the Prize for physics (shared it with her colleague Antoine Henri Becquerel and her husband Pierre) and in 1911 for chemistry.  She was not originally included on the prize in 1903 until her husband, Pierre, complained. He wrote: "If it is true that one is seriously thinking about me [for the Nobel Prize], I very much wish to be considered together with Madame Curie with respect to our research on radioactive bodies." The letter was written to mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler who was an advocate for women in science.  Neither of the Curies showed up in Stockholm for the ceremony citing illness.

In 1911, when Marie accepted the prize alone for her work in chemistry, she was a widow.  Pierre died in a fluke accident involving a horse drawn carriage.  In Paris, in a heavy rain, he was knocked over by the carriage and the wheel crushed his head.  Some think that he may have survived the crash if not for his weakened state due to exposure to radiation.

Marie Curie coined the phrase, "radioactivity" in her theory of radioactivity.  She developed techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes and discovered two elements, polonium and radium.   At the time, it wasn't known how dangerous radiation exposure was to your health.  Much of her work was done without proper protection.  Considering this, it is amazing that she lived until 1934 and died at the age of 66.  She often walked around with test tubes of radioactive isotopes in her pocket, stored then in her desk and sometime took the train with a suitcase full of radioactive material.  She died of aplastic anemia, a result of a long term exposure to radiation, which is a condition where your bone marrow no longer produces new cells anymore.  

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