Madame Curie, Caltech & Me: One of These Is Not Like the Others

Jul 28, 2011

Marie Curie

A few weeks ago, my friend Leslie gave me a tour of her alma mater and current place of employment, the crown jewel of Pasadena’s academic life, Caltech. I’ve lived here for nearly 20 years but had never walked around the beautiful campus or soaked in the moonbeams and brain waves. Leslie was a fantastic tour guide—enthusiastic, informed and on the inside, working in their technology department and being married to an astrophysicist. We saw the storied lecture room where Richard Feynman taught (you know, that guy who invented quantum mechanics who I had never heard of before!) and wandered the same olive tree–lined pathways that Einstein and dozens of other Nobel winners have wandered. I heard about the traditions of the undergraduates and the work of the grad students. Then we had lunch at the Atheneaum, where, at the famous round tables, we spotted the physics department, the geology department and the president of the Caltech eating with the mayor of Pasadena. (That’s a Geek Celebrity Sighting in Pasadena).

Plus, we saw a kid wearing a t-shirt that said “Weapons of Math Destruction,” and that was awesome.

But one detail has stuck with me from my tour, an amazing photo randomly slapped up on the wall of a lab that featured about 20 male scientists, a dog and Marie Curie. It shook my memory of one of the most fascinating books we ever read in the Satellite Sisters Radio Book Club series, where we specialized in biographies and memoirs by or about women. I went home to look up the title for my friend Leslie and I thought I’d share with you the Sisterlogue I wrote before our interview with author Barbara Goldsmith.

Madame Curie, you rock!

That Marie Curie was quite a gal. I’ll be honest, I knew Marie Curie was a famous woman scientist, but that was about it. To me, Marie Curie was an important but vague figure whose accomplishments could be covered in one paragraph in an elementary-school history book under the short chapter “Women in History.” Remember the one week you spent in grade school learning about all the important women ever? I sort of lumped Marie Curie in with the Clara Barton/Florence Nightingale/Jane Hull era. Before starting Barbara Goldsmith’s fascinating book Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie, I couldn’t name Curie’s scientific contributions, but I knew they were BIG. Now, I am thoroughly impressed and am a card-carrying member of the Marie Curie fan club.

For the record, Marie Curie wasn’t even French; she was Polish and educated in secret under the watchful, repressive eyes of the Russians who had taken over her country. She was a first-rate scientist before she married Pierre Curie—no coattails for Marie, and she was not simply his “assistant” in the lab. She discovered radium, and her work with radiation would ultimately kill her. Of the six Nobel prizes ever given to women in the hard sciences, Marie Curie won two, one in physics and one in chemistry. Her daughter then went onto win a Nobel. Marie Curie accomplished all of this at a time when the male-dominated scientific community wouldn’t even refer to her by her proper title, “Doctor,” insisting instead on calling her Madame Curie. Her husband was “Dr. Curie.”

But, of course, because this is a human story about a real women trying to balance her work, her family, her finances and the political stresses of the day, Marie Curie accomplished all this at a tremendous price. She was a single mother for a long time, suffered from long bouts of depression, and could never really leave her work in the lab to enjoy her children. That struggle is what makes her story so compelling and so relevant today.

If you’re looking for a new personal hero, I encourage you and your daughters to read the book, which digs much deeper than so many other biographies because Goldsmith had access to Marie Curie’s personal diaries. (All of which are still radioactive, by the way.) Marie Curie deserves much more recognition than a paragraph in a 6th-grade textbook.

Lian Dolan is the author of the best-selling novel Helen of Pasadena. This column originally appeared on her blog, The Chaos Chronicles.



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