Marie Curie: The Discovery of Radioactivity Marie Curie, born in Warsaw during 1867, was destined to make one

of the most important scientific discoveries of the era in radioactivity (a word of her invention) and become the most famous woman chemist. For such a renowned scientist, Mrs. Curie had humble beginnings. Her family were Polish patriots, and were consequently prosecuted. However, she proceeded to graduate from high school with honors at 15, but her mother and eldest sister had both died of diseases. Marie became sick, probably from depression, and was sent to live in the country with her cousins for an easy year. Her fervent desire for education drew her back to Warsaw, where she made a pact with her sister. She would work as a governess to earn money while her sister became a doctor, then they her sister would support her when she went to a university. Three years later, when she was 24, she had finally accumulated enough funds for a proper education and left for Paris. Although she was not as prepared as some other students at the Sorbonne, she completed her masters in Physics and Math only three years. Purpotordly, she sometimes became so absorbed in her studies that she forgot to eat. Her hard work paid off, and she was given the task of recording the magnetic properties of various steels. For this work, she needed a laboratory. In this manner, she was introduced to Pierre Curie, who happened to be the Laboratory Chief at the Paris Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry. It should also be noted that his lab was in poor condition. Pierre had made several important discoveries relating to magnetism ans crystals, but had never published a doctoral paper. As they worked together, Pierre convinced Marie to stay in Paris and not return to Poland, as she had been planning. In turn, she convinced him to publish his research on magnetism, which earned him a professorship. They married in July 1895, and two years later she completed her work on steel just before giving birth to her daughter, Irene. Marie began hunting for a research topic to give her a doctorate in science, which no other in the world had ever received.

The discovery of X rays by Wilhelm Roentgen and the uranium 'rays' a few months by Henri Becquerel later gave Marie the inspiration she needed and, with such limited data, began experiments immediately. In order to conduct her research, she needed a laboratory, but the best she could find was a basement at the university where Pierre worked. It was damp and crowded, but she made it work. She began to measure the radioactivity of certain compounds containing uranium, and soon discovered that the uranium concentration was the sole determinant of radioactivity. This was different from every other property known at the time, and Marie came to suspect that the atoms themselves were emitting the rays from the inside. She also discovered that compounds containing the uncommon element thorium emitted rays. She coined the term 'radioactivity' to describe this effect. However, the mineral pitchblende was an exception. It gave off more radiation than the uranium or other known radioactive elemnts could account for. This lead Marie to believe that there was a new, as-of-yet unknown highly radioactive element that existed inside pitchblende. Pierre recognized the importance of this observation and dropped his work on crystals to speed the process. They succeeded in finding not one, but two elements, which they named 'polonium' and 'radium'. However, other scientists were skeptical of the discovery, as it could not be seen or weighed. The Curies' task: isolate radium into measurable cuantities. For years, they worked in an abandoned wooden shed (the basement wasn't large enough) to seperate a fraction of a gram of a radium from tons of raw pitchblende. Finally, after horid conditions and arduous work, they isolated radium. The amazing new element glowed green at night, radiated heat, and produced more radiation than any other material known. This quickly captured the imagination of the scientific community and confered instant fame upon the Curie couple. Pierre later proved that radium caused damage to human to skin, but Marie continued to believe that radiation was not significantly harmful to humans. The discovery of radium led to a thriving new industry, during which its uses were heavily explored. Examples include watches that glow in the dark and medical research. After their discovery, they accepted the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 and continued rsearch on their historic dicovery. In 1908, Marie Curie became

the first and last woman to ever be awarded the Nobel Prize twice, this time "in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element". She also made the unusual decision to not patent the radium isolation process to allow other chemists to continue her work. But there was not to be a happy ending for Marie Curie. Only a month after accepting her second Nobel Prize, she was hospitalized for kidney trouble and depression. The cause was obvious; radiation from her intensive research had finally reached toxic levels. However, she managed to live for a while longer, surviving Piere's untimely death in a road accident and continuing to advocate the use of radioactive technology in medicine. After WWII brok out, she donated bother her and Piere's medals to the war effort. She was treated as a hero for the rest of her life. She died in 1934 from aplastic anemia, almost certainly caused extensive exposure to radiation. Though she maintained that radiation was not harmful to humans, there is little doubt about the cause of her death. Proof of radiation's devestating effect on humans can be seen at right, a child victim of the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl. Although radium is not particularly important today, the effects of this discovery lay the foundation for modern resarch into radioactivity, light, waves, the electromagnetic spectrum, nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion. She also serves as a reminder of radiation's incredible capacity to do both good and evil (chemotherapy & nuclear fusion vs nuclear weapons & direct human exposure). In conclusion, Marie Curie had an unremarkable childhood aside from an enormous interest in science and mathematics. She worked hard and married a fellow scientist, who helped her with her work. After the discovery of X-rays, she found a discrepancy in the radioactivity of pitchblende which led the discovery of radium. She spent years processing tons of pitchblende to isolate a minuscule amount of radium, and earned two Nobel Prizes for her work. After years of research and humanitarian work, she succumbed to the power she

had discovered and died of radiation poisoning. She stands today as a symbol of humanity's ability to stand before nature and reveal its innermost secrets.

Works Cited

"Curie, Pierre." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online School Edition. 29May2008 <>. "Curie, Marie." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online School Edition. 29May2008 <>. "Marie Curie," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008 "Marie Curie: Her Story on Brief." American Institute of Physics. 29 May 2008 <>. "Inventor Marie Curie Biograohy." Great Idea Finder. 29 May 2008 <>.