The secret sex life of Marie Curie

The private lives of scientists reveal much about the way they work and the discoveries they make. Tom Wilkie examines passions among the pipettes

Madame Curie, the discoverer of radium and of polonium, was a woman of passion. The popular view of her life is a tale of almost elemental force of character.

Having arrived in France as a penniless Polish student, she went on to dominate French science at the beginning of this century. She was awarded two Nobel prizes, discovered two chemical elements, essentially invented the concept of radioactivity and founded a scientific dynasty: her daughter Irene and son-in-law Frederic Joliot-Curie themselves shared a Nobel prize in the Thirties. (Marie was the first - and Irene only the second - woman to win the Nobel prize.)

Yet Madame Curie's passions were not confined to her professional and scientific life. In 1910, about four years after her husband, Pierre, had died in a road accident, the 43-year-old widow embarked on a highly charged love affair with Paul Langevin, a scientist five years her junior. The lovers even rented a flat near the Sorbonne where they could meet in secret.

There was a drawback. Langevin was a married man and the father of four children. Langevin's wife discovered the love letters that Marie had written to him and dished the dirt to the Parisian equivalent of the News of the World. According to Susan Quinn's recently published biography Marie Curie: A Life, rumours of an affair had already been circulating.

Publication of the letters scandalised France. It was clearly not just a physical infatuation. Marie was thinking in terms of marriage and had written to her lover urging him to divorce his wife and marry her, although that would scarcely have been any less shocking at the time. Moreover, Paul Langevin had clearly not completely given up on his own marriage: his wife bore their fourth child just before he embarked on the affair with Marie.

After the news broke, the Swedish Academy of Sciences tried to dissuade her from coming to Stockholm to receive her Nobel prize so that the adulteress should not shake hands with the Swedish king. Paul Langevin felt honour- bound to fight a duel against the journalist who wrote the expose. He arranged a legal separation from his wife, but despite Marie's urgings, refused to seek a divorce. Her reputation was not completely restored until her heroic efforts to help wounded French soldiers during the First World War.

Had Marie Curie been an artist this scandal might have been unremarkable. It has long been accepted that an understanding of an artist's life illuminates and enhances one's understanding of their work. That Joe Orton, the Sixties playwright, lived in a sort of homosexual marriage with Kenneth Halliwell (who murdered him) and that he went "cottaging" in public lavatories is relevant to the black humour of Orton's plays. Is the same thing true in science?

Genius, James Glieck's recent masterly biography of Richard Feynman, revealed the world's greatest post-war theoretical physicist as a notorious philanderer. He slept with many of his colleagues' wives, was a regular visitor to strip clubs, and on one occasion appears to have financed his mistress's illegal abortion (although the details are inevitably murky). Even Einstein, that icon of the ethereal scientist, had an enthusiastically earthy side when it came to women. Is there a connection between the energy and drive these people brought to their scientific practice and the power of their emotional lives?

Marie Curie was in no doubt about it. When Svante Arrhenius, a member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, wrote to her after the story of her love affair broke, she responded briskly: "The prize has been awarded for the discovery of radium and polonium. I believe that there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life. I cannot accept ... that the appreciation of the value of scientific work should be influenced by libel and slander concerning private life."

Personal biography is important to understanding science because there are different personal styles of scientific research. In the best book yet written about modern biology (recently reissued in paperback), The Eighth Day of Creation, Horace Freeland Judson remarks that "as scientists understand very well, personality has always been an inseparable part of their styles of inquiry, a potent if unacknowledged factor in their results. No art or popular entertainment is so carefully built as is science upon the individual talents, preferences and habits of its leaders." Judson contrasts the thorough, intense style of Max Perutz, who won the Nobel prize for discovering the structure of haemoglobin, with that of Jim Watson, the co-discoverer of the double helix of DNA.

Perutz began working on haemoglobin in 1937, but even though he worked with great dedication on the problem, he did not achieve full results until 1958 - 21 years after he started. Watson, on the other hand, has never worked on any problem for more than a couple of years. Yet the realisation that DNA had the structure of a double helix is probably the single most important scientific discovery of the second half of the 20th century. Watson's famous account of his partnership with Francis Crick, The Double Helix, conveys the impression that Watson spent most of his time playing tennis and chasing pretty girls. He still plays tennis, and even today there are traces of that impatience to get on with things: Watson never finishes a sentence, always swallowing the last few words as he moves on to the next thought.

There is one common factor in the biographies of successful scientists: to a surprising extent, scientists are social outsiders. The penniless Polish girl Maria Sklodowska was an outsider simply by virtue of her sex: she had to go to the Sorbonne because Warsaw University did not admit women. Marie was a foreigner in France and from not quite the right social class in Poland. Her husband, too, was for most of his life a non-establishment figure. When they began their research, it was in a laboratory at the Ecole municipale de physique et chemie - an establishment definitely lacking in social cachet. It is difficult to believe that this aspect of their biographies is not relevant to understanding how they came to do such creative scientific work.

The tension between social class and science is particularly evident in Britain, especially from the beginning of the 19th century. The impact of the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution, combined with the respect for the classics engendered as part of Thomas Arnold's reforms of the English public schools, helped to spread the Platonic view that experimental science was not the occupation of gentlemen. Science has always been a craft-based activity and the best scientists tend quite literally to be "hands on". (It is no accident that the key to Watson and Crick's discovery of the double helix was that they made physical cut-out models of the molecule's component parts and tried endlessly to fit them together.)

Gentlemen do not get their hands dirty in that way. So the greatest of British scientists have tended to be from the fringes of the UK, geographically or socially. The two towering figures of 19th-century British science were Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell. Faraday, Mrs Thatcher's favourite scientist, was the son of a blacksmith and an adherent to an obscure religious sect, the Sandemanians. Maxwell, the brilliant theoretical physicist, was a Scot.

In the early 20th century, Marie Curie's contemporary, Ernest (later Lord) Rutherford was Britain's greatest experimental physicist: he came from New Zealand. Watson and Perutz were, of course, foreigners to Britain and while Francis Crick comes from comfortable middle-class stock, his scientific biography is unusual in that, by the time he started working with Watson, he, too, was a scientific outsider: he was over 30, had essentially failed as a physicist, and had still not obtained his PhD.

Science is not done by cold, logically correct, calculating machines. It is an intensely human activity, just as the arts are. Science requires inspiration and imagination, which means that personality, passion, and style are important. And while Marie Curie seems to be right that scientists' sex lives do not matter, it appears that their social class does.

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Sport
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
football
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
News
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little