At number 7 in The Guardian’s list of ten best physicists is Marie Curie. She is the only woman in this list, although she is more often thought of as a chemist than a physicist.
To be controversial on purpose, is she in this list as the token woman, or does she deserve to be in it?
Curie’s brief biography
Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. In 1891 she moved to Paris, and enrolled at the Sorbonne (part of the University of Paris) to study physics, chemistry and mathematics. She graduated with a degree in Physics in 1893. In the same year she met Pierre Curie, who was an instructor at the École Supérieure. They married in 1895. Between meeting Pierre Curie in 1893 and the year 1902 they published over 30 papers together on their research into radioactivity and the new elements they were discovering. In 1900 Curie was appointed onto the faculty at the École Normale Supérieure, becoming their first ever woman member of faculty.
In 1903 Curie was awarded the Physics Nobel prize, along with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel – “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel”.
Curie continued her research, and in 1905 was awarded a PhD from the University of Paris. The following year, 1906, Pierre Curie was killed whilst crossing the road in Paris. Marie was offered the Professor Chair her husband had been appointed to at the Sorbonne, becoming the first woman Professor at the Sorbonne.
Curie discovered two new elements, radium and polonium. In 1911 Curie was awarded the Chemistry Nobel prize. The citation read “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element”. She was the first person to win two Nobel prizes, she is the only person to win Nobel prizes in two different fields of science, and is only one of two people (the other being Linus Pauling) who have won Nobel prizes in two different fields.
Curie died in 1934, aged 66, of aplastic anaemia, which is believed to have been caused by her long-term exposure to radiation from the radioactive elements she isolated and studied. Her laboratory notebooks are still too radioactive to be handled without protection. In 1995 Curie’s body was moved to the Panthéon in Paris, becoming the first woman to be honoured by being interned there.
Above I asked whether Marie Curie was just in this list so that a woman would be represented in the top 10 physicists list. I think, after one considers the huge contribution she made to early 20th Century physics and chemistry through her work on radioactivity, it is clear that she thoroughly deserves her place in this top 10 list.
You can read more about Marie Curie and the other physicists in this “10 best” list in our book 10 Physicists Who Transformed Our Understanding of the Universe. Click here for more details and to read some reviews.