Saturday, August 8, 2009
Marie Curie: Badass
Due to their levels of radioactivity, her papers from the 1890s (and even her cookbook) are considered too dangerous to handle. They are kept in lead-lined boxes; those who wish to consult them must wear protective clothing.
I mean, of course, the actual facts of the matter are tragic, and I doubt the Curies would find anything funny about the fact that Marie inadvertently killed herself by exposure to radiation.
But at a remove, there's something brilliant about the literalization of the metaphor. She was the kind of woman who discovered radioactive isotopes in her shed, and carried around test tubes of them in her pocket. Her cookbook is radioactive (which speaks volumes about the tension between the scientific and domestic spheres). Badass.
(At some point the literalization of metaphor gets kitschy, and you suspect someone somewhere is having too much fun: "it was their mutual interest in magnetism that drew [Marie] Skłodowska and [Pierre] Curie together")
Posted by benrosen at August 8, 2009 05:14 PM
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It was Pierre who carried around radium in his pocket. But he didn't die from it. He died because he was hit by a military horse-drawn supply wagon while crossing the street.
Marie Curie died of leukemia (as did her also Nobel Prize winning daughter). Leukemia can come from radiation, but most of it probably comes from other things. Most of the radiation Marie Curie received was not from radioactive materials but from x-rays.
Marie Curie invented the first portable x-ray machine and trained hundreds of French nurses in its use. These women, including Marie, were out in the battlefield in the First World War x-raying French soldiers who were to go into immediate surgery. This undoubtedly saved thousands of lives but it exposed the x-rayers to large doses of x-rays because they had no protection and were doing it all day (and night).
X-rays have no connection to radioactivity.
Also, Marie Curie did not discover radioactivity. Radioactivity was discovered by Henri Becquerel in 1896 while working on phosphorescence of Uranium salts. Marie Curie isolated radium, a decay product of uranium from tons of uranium waste.
Pierre Curie did fundamental work on magnetism which is still part of the standard curriculum today.
Thank you for the corrections!