The Curie Legacy

Aug 16, 2017 No Comments by 1554 views

The plenary talk given today by Hélène Langevin-Joliot was one of the most highly anticipated talks of the week, made clear by the packed amphitheatre. Hélène, a nuclear physicist herself, is the granddaughter of Pierre and Marie Curie. The accomplished family boasts an impressive 5 Nobel Prizes between them, with Marie becoming the first person (regardless of gender) to win the Nobel Prize twice and in two distinct scientific disciplines. It’s no wonder that Marie has become an iconic figure of inspiration to women in STEM worldwide.


A full amphitheatre for Hélène Langevin-Joliot

Hélène gave a poignant talk about how her grandparents worked together to revolutionise the field of radioactivity. She began by noting how their personalities were in stark contrast to each other; Pierre was already a well-known physicist while she held no position whatsoever. Their different personalities helped their collaboration.


It was on the invitation from a Polish professor that Pierre helped the young Marie Sklodowska as she embarked on her scientific career in Paris. Before they met they had both ruled out love and marriage for their life’s programme… Pierre changed his mind within two or three days but it took over a year for Marie, as she was convinced that her duty was to return to Poland to her family. During her vacation to Poland, Pierre wrote her romantic letters to try to convince her to return.

“It will be a fine thing to live together, hypnotised by our dreams: your patriotic dream, our humanitarian dream, and our scientific dream.”

Eventually Marie chose Pierre and their scientific dream.


The work carried out by the Curies has been hugely influential across many fields. In January 1903 an ‘epic discussion’ took place in the Swedish Academy because the committee for the Nobel Prize and the committee for the Nobel Prize in chemistry both claimed that radioactivity has to be taken into account in their fields. Their influence on radiotherapy began with the collaboration between Pierre and a physician when he left a small piece of radium on his arm and studied the evolution of the wound.


The notebook of Pierre and Marie Curie from their discovery of radium

The story of Marie and Pierre was an outstanding adventure that was brought to a tragic end in April 1906 with the death of Pierre. In the wake of his death, the University in Paris quickly made the decision to break tradition and appoint Marie as the director of the lab and became first an assistant professor, and then a professor two years later. This decision marked a significant step forward for equality for women in research and teaching activities.


Hélène reflected on the hopes that Marie and Pierre had for science to benefit humanity, and their concern for the potential for it to be misused with grave consequences. These words ring as true now as they did then. The concluding remarks were for Marie, who was often overlooked as merely an assistant to her husband and became a mythic figure among the scientific community.

“The fight for equality between women and men in science is not over.”

General, Goldschmidt 2017, On the Rocks

About the author

I'm a final year PhD student at Trinity College Dublin. My research interests lie in mantle geochemistry and the rare earth elements in olivine.
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