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Posts Tagged ‘Marie Curie’

23 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Marie Curie on Curiosity, Wonder, and the Spirit of Adventure in Science

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A short manifesto for the vitalizing power of discovery.

“Few persons contributed more to the general welfare of mankind and to the advancement of science than the modest, self-effacing woman whom the world knew as Mme. Curie.” So read the obituary for Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only person to date to win a Nobel in two different sciences, published the day after her death in 1934. Three years later, her younger daughter, Eve Curie Labouisse, captured her mother’s spirit and enduring legacy in Madame Curie: A Biography (public library).

Among the ample anecdotes of the great scientist’s life and the many direct quotations of her humbly stated yet fiercely upheld convictions is one particularly poignant passage that speaks to the immutable resonance between science and wonder, the inextinguishable causal relationship between childhood’s innate curiosity and humanity’s greatest feats of discovery. Eve Curie quotes her mother, adding to history’s greatest definitions of science:

I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale. We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific progress can be reduced to mechanisms, machines, gearings, even though such machinery also has its beauty.

Neither do I believe that the spirit of adventure runs any risk of disappearing in our world. If I see anything vital around me, it is precisely that spirit of adventure, which seems indestructible and is akin to curiosity.

Complement with this excellent 1964 meditation on what children can teach us about risk, failure, and discovery, then revisit artist Lauren Redniss’s sublime illustrated cyanotype biography of Curie, one of the best art books of 2011.

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05 JULY, 2013

July 5, 1934 Obituary: Mme. Curie Is Dead; Martyr to Science

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“Few persons contributed more to the general welfare of mankind and to the advancement of science than the modest, self-effacing woman whom the world knew as Mme. Curie.”

“Read obituaries,” Charles Wheelan advised in his wonderful 10½ Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said. “Obituaries are just like biographies, only shorter. They remind us that interesting, successful people rarely lead orderly, linear lives.”

On July 4, 1934, legendary Polish-born physicist and chemist Marie Curiesage of science, reconstructionist, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only person to date to win a Nobel in two different sciences — took her last breath. The following day, The New York Times published a lengthy obituary for Curie, which began on the front page and spilled over into the interior of the paper — a rare outlier in mainstream media’s recently bemoaned severe gender bias in notable deaths, amidst the travesty of opening a remembrance for a female rocket scientist with her Beef Stroganoff recipe. Curie’s obituary, however, was a true masterpiece of the genre, celebrating Curie’s spirit and legacy in a beautifully dimensional way:

PARIS, July 4. — Mme. Marie Curie, whose work alone and with her husband on radium and radiology has been one of the greatest glories of modern science, died at 6 o’clock this morning in a sanitarium near Sallanches in Upper Savoy. Her death, which was caused by a form of pernicious anemia, was hastened by what her physicians termed “a long accumulation of radiations” which affected the bones and prevented her from reacting normally to the disease.

Mme. Curie went to Sallanches last Friday after having been for five weeks in a Paris clinic. It was thought at first that she had suffered a lung ailment and for that reason she was sent to the mountains. Her death came as a surprise to all but her family and intimate friends, for the rare modesty of her character never deserted her and she did not allow the public to know how ill she was. Her daughters, Eve, who is a dramatist and pianist of considerable talent, and Mme. Jolliot, who with her husband was carrying on the family tradition at the radium institute over which her mother presided, were at the bedside when the end came.

The text goes on to note the astounding contrast between Curie’s monumental contributions to science and her famous modesty.

Few persons contributed more to the general welfare of mankind and to the advancement of science than the modest, self-effacing woman whom the world knew as Mme. Curie. Her epoch-making discoveries of polonium and radium, the subsequent honors that were bestowed upon her — she was the only person to receive two Nobel prizes — and the fortunes that could have been hers had she wanted them did not change her mode of life. She remained a worker in the cause of science, preferring her laboratory to a great social place in the sun. The road which she and her husband had chosen she followed throughout her life, disdaining all pomp. And thus she not only conquered great secrets of science but the hearts of the people the world over.

What New York Times obituaries say about America (Columbia Journalism Review)

For anyone still convinced that the attainment of a Nobel Prize is glorious business, the Times cites Academy of Paris president Paul Appell’s account of the Curies’ version of Patti Smith’s starving artist days:

M. and Mme. Curie, not being able to pursue their chemical experiments in a schoolroom which had been placed at their disposal, arranged for these in a sort of abandoned warehouse opposite their atelier. In this place, with its asphalt floor, its broken and patched glass roof, hot in Summer, heated by a cast-iron stove in Winter, they performed their wonderful work.

The equipment consisted of some old and worn deal tables, upon which Mme. Curie prepared the material for the production of radium. She was laboratory chief assistant and handy boy at the same time. In addition to her intellectual labor it was frequently necessary for her to perform severe manual toil. On many an afternoon she stirred in a great caldron with a heavy iron rod the molten mass of the radioactive products, reaching home at evening exhausted by fatigue but delighted to see that her labors had led to a luminous product of concentration.

The obituary further illustrates the Curies’ humble, dedicated ways:

So devoted were these two to their work that they frequently forgot to eat, and as often ate plain bread and washed it down with coffee in their laboratory.

This humility is also manifested in how, like fellow science hero Richard Feynman, notoriously nonchalant about honors Curie was:

Honors were heaped upon her, but she was indifferent to most. The money she received from her prizes was immediately used for purposes of scientific research. In 1919 one gram of radium, valued at $100,000, was presented to Mme. Curie as the gift of the people of the United States. In 1929 she received the money with which to purchase another gram of the precious substance, the presentation being made by President Hoover.

Marie Curie, reconstructionist

Curie further defied the stereotypes of her field by infusing her scientific pursuits with a genuine humanistic disposition, best bespoken by her tireless efforts during WWI:

When the World War broke out Mme. Curie offered her services to the Government of France. She closed the Institut Curie and with her elder daughter, Irene, and a few students, she went to a hospital behind the front, employing her knowledge of radiography in aiding the wounded. At her suggestion, automobiles equipped with radiographic apparatus were utilized along the front, and by this means bullets and shell splinters were located in the heads of dangerously wounded soldiers.

But Curie’s legacy is perhaps best captured by Dr. William Lyon Phelps of Yale, one of the many universities that awarded her honorary degrees:

There is one thing rarer than genius. That is radium. Mme. Curie illustrates the combination of both.

At the heart of what made Curie particularly exceptional, however, lies a bittersweet, wistful recognition of how rare women in science have always been — a fact that desperately needs changing if we are to save the future of science for all of humanity.

Pair with artist Lauren Redniss’s magnificent illustrated cyanotype biography of Curie, one of the best art books of 2011.

Illustration by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project

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06 APRIL, 2012

What Is Science? From Feynman to Sagan to Asimov to Curie, an Omnibus of Definitions

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“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious — the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

“We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology,” Carl Sagan famously quipped in 1994, “and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster.” Little seems to have changed in the nearly two decades since, and although the government is now actively encouraging “citizen science,” for many “citizens” the understanding of — let alone any agreement about — what science is and does remains meager.

So, what exactly is science, what does it aspire to do, and why should we the people care? It seems like a simple question, but it’s an infinitely complex one, the answer to which is ever elusive and contentious. Gathered here are several eloquent definitions that focus on science as process rather than product, whose conduit is curiosity rather than certainty.

Stuart Firestein writes in the excellent Ignorance: How It Drives Science:

Real science is a revision in progress, always. It proceeds in fits and starts of ignorance.

Isaac Asimov knew this when he appeared on the Bill Moyers show in 1988 and shared some timeless, remarkably timely insights on creativity in science and education:

Science does not purvey absolute truth, science is a mechanism. It’s a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature, it’s a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match.

Carl Sagan echoed the same sentiment when he remarked:

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.

In a letter to Hans Mühsam dated July 9th, 1951, an elderly Albert Einstein observed:

One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have.

In his recent New York Review of Books piece on Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything, Freeman Dyson offers:

All of science is uncertain and subject to revision. The glory of science is to imagine more than we can prove.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, widely regarded as the father of modern anthropology, articulated the same idea in 1964 in the first volume of his iconic Mythologiques collection of cultural anthropology:

The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.

In the fantastic A General Theory of Love, psychologists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon give this beautiful definition:

Science is an inherent contradiction — systematic wonder — applied to the natural world.

This element of wonder and whimsy also comes through in the words of iconic physicist and mathematician Max Born (thanks, Joe):

Science is not formal logic — it needs the free play of the mind in as great a degree as any other creative art. It is true that this is a gift which can hardly be taught, but its growth can be encouraged in those who already possess it.

In his iconic book On Human Nature, which should be required reading for all, the great biologist and naturalist E. O. Wilson observed:

The heart of the scientific method is the reduction of perceived phenomena to fundamental, testable principles. The elegance, we can fairly say the beauty, of any particular scientific generalization is measured by its simplicity relative to the number of phenomena it can explain.

In 1894, upon having received her second graduate degree, Marie Curie wrote in a letter to her brother:

One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done…

Curie also likely inspired this interpretation of her famous words on the essence of the scientific ethos:

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

Richard Feynman would have nodded in agreement. Einstein certainly did when he observed:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious — the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.

This comes full-circe to Firestein’s book on ignorance, where he asserts:

Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.

But hardly anyone captures the essence and ethos of science more eloquently than The Great Explainer. In 1966, the National Science Teachers Association asked the great Richard Feynman to give an address that answers the question, “What is science?” The answer comes true to character:

And so what science is, is not what the philosophers have said it is, and certainly not what the teacher editions say it is. What it is, is a problem which I set for myself after I said I would give this talk.

After some time, I was reminded of a little poem:

A centipede was happy quite, until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
This raised his doubts to such a pitch
He fell distracted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.

All my life, I have been doing science and known what it was, but what I have come to tell you–which foot comes after which–I am unable to do, and furthermore, I am worried by the analogy in the poem that when I go home I will no longer be able to do any research.

Later in the speech, Feynman hones a more answer-like answer:

[I]f you are going to teach people to make observations, you should show that something wonderful can come from them. I learned then what science was about: it was patience. If you looked, and you watched, and you paid attention, you got a great reward from it — although possibly not every time.

Later:

[Science] teaches the value of rational thought as well as the importance of freedom of thought; the positive results that come from doubting that the lessons are all true.

He closes with a keen point for his audience of professional science educators:

Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation.

Science, then, necessitates a certain comfort with being wrong, a tolerance for the fear of failure — perhaps cultivating that capacity is an essential prerequisite not only for science but also for the basic appreciation of science.

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