Tuesday, April 20, 2010


If Obama deserved his Nobel Peace Prize,

then the King of Saudi Arabia is a humantarian,

and North Korea is a socialist homeland oveflowing with joy!

Socialists usually do not pay much attention to prizes given out in the name of the merchant of death, but have argued that Marie Curie, who working together with her husband first isolated radium on this day in 1902, was deserving of her two Nobels...

It was a bleak morning in November, 1891, when a slight Polish girl clambered down the steps or the German coach at the Gare du Nord. In her hands was clutched her luggage, a folding chair (for the fourth class carriages on the German railways had no seats), a heavy quilt, some books, and food.

She had travelled three days from Warsaw to join her sister, who, while qualifying as a doctor, had married a member of her faculty, also a Pole.

Their mother had died when they were small, leaving the father to raise a family of four girls and a boy.

Both father and mother were teachers. The father, a teacher of physics and mathematics out of favour with the Tsarist inspectors, found his family a problem.

Poland was under the Tsar, no higher education, or professional status, was open to women. After several disappointing years in various posts as 'governess' to wealthy families, the girl, Marya, sumame Sklodowsky, counted up every farthing of her pitiful savings for the great adventure.

She had left the Girls' High School in Warsaw with the highest marks obtainable, and a remarkable knowledge of four foreign languages.

Now, at last, after years of scraping, she was in Pans, bringing her blankets, a mattress, towels and sheets, which her practical sister, Bronya, had said would save precious francs. Her goal, the legendary Sorbonne, now, as then, the largest University in the world.

France, despite the setbacks of 1848 and the Commune, was still the most democratic country in Europe. Fees at the University were not high and no discrimination was made against applicants of foreign birth, off-white colour, ar lowly origin; which a certain Creole, by name Paul Lafargue, had appreciated some years previously.

Marya immediately plunged into a life of fanatical study, her star, the Master's degree in Physical Science. Lodging with her married sister, at first, she subsequently rented a tiny sixth-floor attic in the Latin Quarter to save time and bus fares. Food and warmth were secondary - so limited were her means (partly a small sum contributed by her ageing father), that she regularly frequented the public library till closing time to save a penny on lamp oil.

lf her brother-in-law had not found her and not been a doctor of medicine, radium might be unknown to this day, for she was unconscious in her garret from starvation, cold and fatigue.

A few beefsteaks in the country soon fixed that, with the result that for the first time a girl was top in the master's degree examinations in Physics in 1893.

This triumph was repeated in 1894 when she was first in Physics - and second in Maths. Her outstanding success secured her modest employment in research, as assistant and later as full-fledged research scientist to the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry. More than this, upon return to Poland to see her father - even the officials in Warsaw had at least sense enough ta realise that here, they were onto something, and granted her a bursary far a further year's study at the Sorbonne. Back she went, with nothing less that the Doctor's degree as her aim.

For this, an original discovery is required. Characteristically, Marya selected as the subject of her doctor's theses, just about the most difficult job there was. She decided to investigate the source of Henri Becaueret's mysterious rays. The French physicist had been working on the strange emanations from uranium salts which he had discovered.

For her research into the magnetism of steel she required same rather heavy equipment. A Polish Professor of Physics, visiting Paris, Joseph Kovalski, offered to speak to the chief of the laboratory of the School of Physics and Chemistry, on her behalf. The name of this unique young scientist was Pierre Curie. He was a Bachelor of Science at 16, a Master of Physics at 18. His father practised medicine for a livelihood though his bent was research.

A staunch '48er, Papa was a freethinking radical of the old brigade. To make quite certain that his brilliant son had a real education, he took care to see that he did not ga ta any school. He taught the boy himself and afterwards secured him a gifted tutor.

The result of the introduction of Marya to Pierre Curie was marriage.

Shortly before his marriage Pierre published the results of his research into crystalline physics, which won him a brilliant Doctor's degree. During this time the sole income of the pair was his salary of 500 franes per month.

Until Marya passed first in the examinations and for a Fellowship in secondary education. it was impossible for her to teach in France. Meantime, in September, 1897, Marya gave birth to her first daughter Irene, destined ta becorne a famous physicist, and marry her mother's most able pupil, Frederic Joliot.

Marya decided to study the ionisation power of uranium - that is, to test it on an electroscope, an instrument showing a charge by raising a piece of gold-leaf. In a few weeks she was on to the idea that the radiations of uranium were an atomic property of the material itself.

The problem of whether any other substances possessed these powers next arose.

Her job now was to test every known chemical body. Soon another material, the element thorium, was found to emit radiation. Madame Curie suggested that this peculiar property be called 'radio-activity'. Continuing along the path she had set, the young scientist proceeded to examine every specimen of mineral known to contain uranium, or thorium. for activity. To her astonishment, certan substances quite deficient in either of these elements proved more radio-active than either of them.

To this there could only be ane answer. She had examined all the known elements, therefore the powerful radio-activity must come from an unknown - a new element. An element is a substance consisting entirely of atoms of the same atomic number.

There now began one of the most astounding quests in all the remarkable history of scientific discovery. The proportion of the active stuff was minute - it was like looking for a needle in a haystack as big as a mountain - one gramme to one ton, or about one in one million.

The strongest rays of all had been given by the mineral pitch-blend, a greyish by-product of the glass making industry of Bchemia. The first ton was obtained, and the job that was to take four years began. The material had to be heated, evaporated and allowed ta crystallise, like sugar, and the crystals tested. Twelve months after commeneing her research the following communication was published in the Proceedings of the Academy of Science .

"The various reasons we have just enumerated lead us to believe that the new radio-active substance contains a new element to which we propose to give the name of
Radium...The radio-activity of Radium must be enormous."

As is usual, this announcement met with sceptical indifference. Polonium and radium had to be 'shown' to the scientists before they would believe it.

To find a place to do the job was the first problem. They were loaned the use of a shed at the Institute of Physics.

To get the stuff was the second. By a lucky break, the Austrian Government decided to present a ton of pitchblend free, as a sample, though carriage had to be paid. To live while working was the third. Pierre had to go on teaching. Not only this, but at a critical stage in her research work, Marie had to turn out too.

She accepted a post as lecturer in physics at the Higher Normal School for Girls at Sevres, near Versailles, a Teachers' Training College.

This meant hours of setting lessons, preparing experiments, and correcting 'homework', while the greatest discovery of all time was postponed. During all this time the Curie's most urgent needs, a decent laboratory in which to work, was denied them. Despite all the efforts of his friends neither the University nor the Academy of Science would make him any appointment carrying adequate laboratory facilities. At last, Paul Appell (head of the physics faculty) made a further attempt by means of a manoeuvre, namely, by nominating Pierre for award of the Legion of Honour.

Here is Pierre's reply:-

"Please be so kind as to thank the Minister and to inform him that I do not feel the slightest need of being decorated, but that I am in the greatest need of a laboratory."

Sorne three years later Pierre and Marie were invited to, the Royal Scientific Institution in London to receive the Davy Gold Medal. Upon their return to Paris Pierre gave it to the children to play with.

Marie, at one of the brilliant functions organised after the discovery of Radium, was asked by the wife of the President of the Republic of France, "Would you like to meet his Excellency tbe King of Greece?"

"I don't see the utility!" was her reply.

It was inevitable that under the severe strains of earning a living by teaching science, bringing up two daughters, and devoting every available minute left to the completion of the task of isolating a grain of radium, the health of both Pierre and Marie would break down. By 1903 Pierre was suffering violent attacks of frightful pain periodically. In the same year Marie endured a miscarriage due, as she herself admitted, to 'general fatigue'.

In her work to obtain salts of pure radium Marie was in the words of ber daughter-biographer Eve, 'a factory all by herself'.

Eve Curie's book 'Marie Curie', is a MUST for every Socialist.

"We had no money, no laboratory, and no help," she wrote. And yet it was in this miserable old shed that the best and happiest years of our life were spent...I sometimes passed the whole day stirring a boiling mass with an iron rod nearly as big as myself, In the evening I was broken with fatigue."

Forty-five months after the day in which they had forecast the probable existence of Radium, Marie announced its atomic weight, 225. Nineteenth Century Science was knocked out. A new chapter in its chequered history had begun

ONCE the actual existence of Radium was proved a series of astounding developments followed. Taken up rapidly by the research workers of the world, its endless applications were, at first, bur dimly appreciated.

Medical men tried it in the treatment of cancer, and scored successes. Pierre exposed his arm to it and received it painful burn. In 1903, Rutherford and Soddy, working on Marie's hypothesis, published their 'Theory of Radioactive Transforrnation', the theory that elements thought unchangeable are in spontaneous evolution. Radium gave out heat, affected other substances, pierced solid objects, and was luminous. Radium became 'big business'. A factory was started in France. Enquiries came from all over the world. At last the inevitable one arrived from America by a concern in Buffalo, requesting information on the production of Radium, and suggesting contracts for payment of license fees. For this it would have been necessary for the Curies to stake their claim: to patent their 'invention' and maintain secrecy in its processes. In reply to her husband's request as to whether they should declare themselves the 'proprietors' of Radium Marie replied (as Faraday and Pasteur had done before her): .

"It is impossible. It would be contrary to the scientific spirit."

The information required was given FREE to EVERYBODY.

November, 1903, marked the first real turning point in the Curie's fortune. The Swedish Academy of Science decided to award them half the Nobel Prize in Physics. This amounted to about 70,000 francs, "for us, a huge sum."

After this, the University of Paris had to create a chair in physics for Pierre Curie.

More than this, he was officially allowed three paid assistants, and the chief of lab. nominated Madame Curie. The first woman to be thus accorded official recognition - the first woman to be admitted to tbe Royal lnstitution in London - and the first woman scientist of world rank, winner of the Nobel Prize. Pierre and Marie applied themselves to the new life. Both continued teacbing as before.

Life was a little easier now. But, as is s often tbe case, Fate waited in tbe background to drown content in the cup of sorrow.

On April 19th, 1906, Pierre Curie was leaving his publishers on the way to the Institute of Science, when be was run down by a heavy dray, the rear wheel passed over bis head; one of the greatest brains in the world ceased to think. Tbe 20 foot wagon was loaded with military uniforms.

The Government proposed to award Madame Curie and her children a State pension, which she indignantly refused.

Tbe University naturally desired to retain Marie in its faculty. But how! It was finally decided that there was only only one physicist capable of replacing Pierre Curie - Marie - his widow. This was the first time tbat a post in higher education was given to a woman.

When the time came for her to start her course the hushed and tense audience heard her opening sentence with amazement. She started at the exact point where her late husband had concluded a year befare. Finally, an agreement was made between Dr. Row, of the Pasteur Institute and the University of Paris for the foundation of the institute of Radium, under the direction of Marie Curie.

By this time, the honours, medals and prizes, showered upon her by the world's scientific bodies ran into hundreds; filling several printed pages. She was the only woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize twice. And so she went steadily on, instructing her pupils, continuing to direct research until the first world war, when she organised an X-ray Unit, which utilised the electrical knowledge she had discovered.

Finally, she died in 1934, but not until she had made several triumphal tours to the United States, her native Warsaw, and the Far East.

Eleanor Doorly in her Puffin Books little sketch 'The Radium Woman' tells the story of the attempts by Mrs Melmay to persuade the wealthy American women to give ten thousand dollars eacb to buy the discoverer of radium one gramme of it to perrmit her to continue her researches. Only three could be found. A subscription fund among the women of America raised the amount in less than a year. This gramme of radium was presented to her at the White House by the President of the United States.

What is it that makes these two - Marie, and her husband Pierre, such lovable and attractive characters. Not their scientific prowess, not their almost superhuman concentration on the job to be done. No! Above all tbeir self-effacing modesty, and refusal to assume superiority, Pierre's firm refusal to accept decorations, their avoidance of publicity, and renunciation of personal wealth. Not once, but several times, they turned down fortunes. They just wanted to work at the job they had chosen.

As 'Marie wrote later:-

"Pierre Curie was little inclined to take an active part in politics.

"By education and feeling he was attached to democratic and socialist ideas, but he was dominated by no party doctrine."

Pierre himself wrote at the beginning of their acquaintance

"It would be a fine thing to pass our lives near to each other, hypnotised by our dreams, your patriotic dream, our humanitarian dream, and our scientific dream.

Of all those dreams the last is, I believe, the only legitimate one.

I mean by that, that we are powerless to change the social order, and, even if we were not, we should not know what to do in taking action, no matter in what direction, we should never be sure of not doing more harm than good by retarding some inevitable evolutions. From the scientific point of view, on the contrary, we may hope to do something, the ground is solider here and any discovery we may make, however small, will remain acquired knowledge."

When the newspaper correspondents of two continents were rapping on their front door, they would slide off through the back on their bicycles. To-day it is fashionable to blame scientists for the existence of the Hydrogen bomb, and if we are consistent, nobody should be blamed more than Marie Curie, whose discovery of natural radium made the manufacture of artificial isotopes (radio-active substances) possible.

Nothing could be more absurd. Pierre abhorred violence in every form. Both worked for humanity, If she is to be blamed for Atomic bombs, let her be praised for nuclear reactors. Film companies and magazine owners have made fortunes from their story. An aura of 'romantic' legend has been fabricated around it.

Marie herself debunked it in the clearest terms.

"lt is true that the discovery of radium was made in precarious conditions; the shed which sheltered it seems clouded in the charms of legend. But this romantic element was not an advantage; it wore out our strength and delayed our accomplishment. With better means, the first five years of our work might have been reduced to two, and their tension lessened."

They paid tbe price for their discovery in ruined health.

Until radium became a saleable commodity nobody wanted to know, they could kill themselves, just two more screwy cranks. When there was money in it, how the letters poured in! Kings and Presidents rushed to shake their hands, award tbem medals, and toast their honour.

And yet when Marie was invited back to Wawsaw 24 years later at the opening of the Warsaw Institute of Radium, she spotted at a banquet in her honour a tiny white-haired old lady, Mde. Sikorska, her teacher at the boarding school she attended when a tot. Straightway the sincere unaftected Marie made her way down the tables to take her first teacher by tbe hands, and kiss her cbeeks.

Tbe atomic weight of Radium was announced in 1904. This year saw the birth of the Socialist Party in Great Britain. It was in that year, after nearly three years of exbausting drudgery, that Marie asked Pierre, after the children were put to bed, to go with her down to the damp and dingy old shed which housed their works.

Opening the door and peering tbrough the darkness they saw the queer phosphorescent gleam of a grain of pure radium, the supposedly indestructible molecules of matter were actually seething systems of whirling electrons in exploding atoms.

Until the birth of the Socialist idea, and its realisation into a Party, the Capitalist system seemed indestructible too.

Socialism, in the realm of ideas, like radium in the physical world, gleamed with an inextinguishable glow, and aftected those it contacted with a political "radioactivity."

To Socialists the work of Marie Curie will always epitomise the struggle of the people for knowledge and freedom.

Like those other martyrs of the battle, the heroic Communards of her beloved Paris, she will be forever "enshrined in the great heart of the working class."

In actual numbers, or sheer physical size, the early S.P.G.B. roughly corresponded with the proportion of radium in pitch-blende, one to the million.


(The Socialist Standard February & June, 1956)




No comments: