The lady with the lab

Marie Curie: A Life by Susan Quinn Heinemann, pounds 17.99; Was the discoverer of radium a feminist heroine? By Lucy Hughes-Hallett

In November 1911, Marie Curie was awarded her second Nobel Prize. Days later, a Paris journal published letters between her and her fellow- scientist Pierre Langevin which demonstrated not only that they were having an affair but also that Marie Curie, who had been widowed three years earlier, was trying to persuade Langevin to leave his wife and four children. A representative of the Swedish Academy wrote to her suggesting that, in the circumstances, she might wish to postpone accepting the prize until her reputation had been cleared. Her response was superbly defiant. "The prize has been awarded for the discovery of Radium and Polonium'', she wrote. "I believe that there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of my private life." A month later she went to Sweden.

In fact the distinction, in Marie Curie's case, between work and emotional life was all but non-existent. Even her liaison with Langevin she presented to herself as a way of saving for science a brilliant man burdened by a vulgar wife. As a student at the Sorbonne, Curie had begun by socialising with her compatriots (she was Polish) but gradually dropped all her acquaintances except those with whom she could discuss the work which engrossed her. Her happiest years were those when she and her husband Pierre Curie worked together. "A great tranquillity reigned in our poor shabby hangar. We lived in a preoccupation as complete as that of a dream".

Curie was working at a joyful time for her subject. When she died in 1934, the pernicious consequences of her discoveries were only just beginning to become manifest. Towards the end of her life she would occasionally admit that her long over-exposure to radiation had damaged her health; but for most of her working life it was possible for her to believe, as her husband did, that scientific research differed from political action in that, in the latter sphere, "We could never be sure we weren't doing more harm than good."

At the beginning of this century, in an exhilarating race between the Curies and their peers, discoveries were made each one of which, as Susan Quinn points out, "violated one assumption or another of nineteenth-century science". Quinn writes clearly and grippingly about these discoveries. Marie Curie was brought up in the oppressive atmosphere of a country under Tsarist domination, where schools had two time-tables, an official one with which to satisfy the Russian inspectors and a true one which included clandestine lessons in Polish literature and history. In her teens she conducted classes for peasant children which, if discovered, might have resulted in her being imprisoned.

For her the intellectual life was heroic, a matter of peril outfaced and adversity overcome. But, as Quinn stresses, it was not just the herculean labour involved in extracting minute quantities of radium from literally tons of other matter which makes her work compelling, but the immensity of its significance. Scientific biography has a clear advantage over the literary variety. While it is hard for the reader to share an author's excitement in, say, finding the right structure for stanza 17, even a scientific ignoramus (like myself) can respond to the glamour of research which lays the foundations of a new theory of matter.

Hindsight has inevitably made of Marie Curie a feminist heroine. She herself seems to have been grandly dismissive of gender. The prodigious youngest child in a brilliant family, she must always have felt herself to be exceptional, not representative of any group, national, ideological or sexual. She was the first female scientist to win the Nobel Prize, and the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne. Her first application to join the Academie Francaise was defeated by anti-feminists determined to uphold "an immutable tradition" of male exclusivity. According to her daughter Eve, the snub "in no wise afflicted her". But she was always careful to correct any impression that she was primarily her husband's helpmeet. As Quinn makes plain, the humility and selflessness for which the Curies, collectively, have been celebrated, were mostly Pierre's. After his death Marie Curie, more worldly-wise, was prompt in claiming credit for her discoveries and regretted the fortune they had sacrificed in deciding not to patent their method of producing radium.

Quinn fills in Curie's various backgrounds, placing her in cultural history as well as in the history of science. The milieux of Warsaw under the Tsars, of the bucolic manor houses of the Polish aristocracy, of the Left Bank at a time when female students were vastly outnumbered by uneducated grisettes, of the belle epoque intelligentsia, are all described in careful detail.

Marie Curie's application to join the Academie and the resulting debate in the press provide a fascinating microcosmic survey of the intellectual climate in France at the time. Curie's candidacy, which she and her supporters discussed solely in terms of her scientific achievements, was viewed by her opponents as a showdown between Church and secular state, the sacrosanct family and renegade women, La Belle France and foreigners. Bizarrely, given that Curie was not even partially Jewish, it even gave rise to a series of anti-Semitic diatribes (her supporters were classed as Dreyfusards).

The core of Quinn's book, though, is, very properly, her account of Curie's work. As they identified more and more radioactive elements, Pierre and Marie Curie were entranced to find their samples were spontaneously luminous - "these gleamings stirred us with ever new emotion and enchantment."

Quinn wisely refrains from doing more than hint at the danger inherent in those gleamings; but her book has itself a potently ambiguous central image - in Marie Curie's precious trove of radium, glowing lethally and amazingly in her ramshackle laboratory.

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss