Friday, November 23, 2012

Marie Curie

Marie Curie (1867-1934) is one of the few scientists who received two Nobel Prizes: for Physics in 1903, and for Chemistry in 1911. Russ Hobbie and I don’t discuss Curie extensively in the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, but in Chapter 17 on Nuclear Medicine we do introduce the unit of radioactive activity named for her.
“The activity A(t) is the number of radioactive transitions (or transformations or disintegrations) per second. The SI unit of activity is the becquerel (Bq):

1 Bq = 1 transition s−1.

The earlier unit of activity, which is still used occasionally, is the curie (Ci):

1 Ci=3.7 × 1010 Bq,
1 μCi = 3.7 ×104 Bq.”

Several excellent articles were published about Marie Curie and her husband/collaborator Pierre Curie for the centennial of her 1898 discovery of radium. Saenger and Adamek’s article in the journal Medical Physics states
“Marie Curie’s activities and research left her imprint on nuclear medicine, which continues to this day. Much of her impact is related to the role of women in science, biology, and medicine. She successfully overcame struggles for recognition in the first decades of this century. One of her major achievements was the development of field-radiography for wounded soldiers in World War I. Her continued endeavors to provide radium therapy for cancer was a giant step for humanity. She worked unceasingly in the laboratory to separate and identify radioactive elements of the periodic table. The standardization of these elements resulted in the 1931 report of the International Radium-Standards Commission and the posthumous two-volume Radio-aktivite´.”
The abstract of Mould’s article in the British Journal of Radiology begins
“This review celebrates the events of 100 years ago to the month of publication of this December 1998 issue of the British Journal of Radiology, when radium was discovered by the Curies. This followed the earlier discovery in November 1895 of X-rays by Röntgen, which has already been reviewed in the British Journal of Radiology [1] and the discovery in March 1896, by Becquerel, of the phenomenon of radioactivity, which introduces this review. This is particularly relevant as Marie Curie was in 1897 a research student in Becquerel's laboratory. Marie Curie's life in Poland prior to her 1891 departure for Paris is included in this review as are other aspects of her life and work such as her work in World War I with radiological ambulances (known as "Little Curies") on the battlefields of France and Belgium, early experiments with radium and the founding of the Institut du Radium in Paris and of the Radium Institute in Warsaw. Wherever possible I have included appropriate quotations in Marie Curie's own words [2-4] and each section is related in some way to the life and work of Maria or Pierre. This review is completed with details of the re-interment of the bodies of Pierre and Marie on 20 April 1995 in The Panthéon, Paris.”
Excellent overviews of Curie’s life and work are provided by the AIP Center for the History of Physics and the Official Website of the Nobel Prize. You can read about the discovery of radium in Maria’s own words here. And for all you dear readers who prefer Saturday morning cartoons to learned articles, watch this; it doesn’t include any complex or controversial stuff, like the Langevin affair, but it is enjoyable in its own simple way.

Recently, the visual artist/filmmaker/writer Quintan Ana Wikswo was granted access to Marie Curie’s laboratory in Paris for “creating performance films and photographs for ... LUMINOSITY: THE PASSIONS OF MARIE CURIE, a multimedia opera by composer Pamela Madsen". Wikswo describes her ongoing work and previews some of her photographs in her blog Bumblemoth.
“To see her books, her equipment, to stand at her desk, to see her beakers and centrifuges and shelves of chemicals…it’s a kind of searing existential therapy, and anyone visiting Paris should make the effort to spend a few moments at her lab. Why? It’s an antidote, at the very least. I work half-days at her lab, and then explore art museums of Paris in the off hours. The contrast is shocking and disturbing. Inspiring and sorrowful.”
At Oakland University, I work in the College of “Arts and Sciences”. Wikswo has found her own niche at the intersection of these two rarely-overlapping endeavors. I look forward to seeing the completed project.

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