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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Pierre Curie, cet illustre inconnu

by By Jean de Leyzieu

Science: Rediscovering Pierre Curie

Translated by Jayne Poland

Translated Wednesday 15 March 2006, by Jane

A review of "Pierre Curie, cet illustre inconnu" [Pierre Curie: Renowned but largely unknown] by Loïc Barbo, Denis Beaudouin and Michel Laguës; Éditions Belin (15 euros).

Because of the particular nature of their common career and common code of ethics, which they tried desperately hard to express though their everything they did, the work and example of Pierre and Marie Curie will forever remain in the pantheon of our history. The couple is legendary. We know everything or almost everything about their lives, then their falling in love, of the meeting between Pierre, the exceptional researcher and Marie, a young student of Polish origin, bound up in her dreams, about their work and their desire to make scientific advances for the good of humanity.

But, we might as well admit it, the death of Pierre Curie, his life of excellence cut short at the age of forty-seven, has, so-to-speak, set their legend in “institutional” marble. This is an admirable book, published at the end of 2005 to conicie with the impressive exhibition “Monsieur Curie, Pierre d’angle de la physique” (Mr. Curie, cornerstone of physics), held in the "Espace des sciences de Paris" (1). The book reveals to us the (much too) hidden face of a precocious, fertile and idealistic researcher.

The authors wonder whether the fame of his wife Marie “has made us forget that of Pierre”, whose contribution was no less great. By recalling numerous handwritten documents, reproduced in this book (a thousand leagues from any hasty popularisation that could glimpsed in a the play about the Curies, then turned into a film), Loïc Barbo, Denis Beaudouin and Michel Laguës, all three themselves scientists, recall largely unknown information about Pierre. Is it often enough recognized, for example, that Pierre had to insist on sharing with his young wife the Nobel Prize, which in 1903, crowned their sensational discovery of radioactivity? Similarly, are we sufficiently aware of the extent to which Pierre Curie found himself preoccupied by the potentially destructuve power of radioactivity? And that he wrote these words to Marie, a little after their first meeting: “It would nevertheless be a beautiful thing, in which I hardly dare to believe, to pass through life together, hypnotized in our dreams: your dream for your country, our dream for humanity, our dream for science”?

Before receiving the Nobel Prize, Pierre, an industrious and obdurate worker, was already a physicist well known for his many works and writings, on piezoelectricity, magnetism and the symmetry principle but where did his genius come from? Was it to be found in his childhood? Pierre did indeed receive a very special education, symbolised by ... an absence of formal schooling! A sort of “truant’s” or “home” schooling, an education close to nature provided by his parents and his elder brother, which did not prevent him from getting his baccalaureat in science at the age of 16 (which was not so unusual at the time, contrary to what we tend to believe).

He quickly threw himself into research, obsessed by the “public interest” and reflecting a certain conception of "The Republic". But more than the study of infrared rays, it is the investigation of the electric properties of crystals, which attracted Pierre, a study done by his brother Jacques (omnipresent shadowy protector) in the famous laboratory of the mineralogist and chemist Charles Friedel, a distant relative.

And later? Pierre was a researcher of renown but also an amazing teacher, according to all those who knew him. When he took on the envied position as Head of Physics at the EPC - the prestigious city-run College of Physics and Chemistry of the city of Paris and later renamed the ESPCI - in 1890, his destiny seemed mapped out... Five years later he was appointed Professor of General Physics by the Director of the school, Paul Schützenberger.

The rest belongs to the history of France: his meeting with Marie, present when he submitted his doctoral thesis, their simple wedding, this couple who possessed nothing except two bicycles, which they rode as far as Brittany and the Auvergne, and then their scientific research in that freezing shed which they loved so much and then the well-demonstrated identification of two new radioactive elements (polonium and radium). At his death, as a result of a tragic carriage accident on 19 April 1906, Marie Curie was appointed to the same post to replace her husband.

The Curie laboratory rapidly became one of the most important in the "modern world". Another legend was forming, that of their elder daughter, Irène and her husband Frédéric Joliot. A family legend, of which Pierre was the founder. Irène will submit a thesis in 1925 on "the alpha rays of plutonium" and Frédéric in 1930 on "the study of the electrochemistry of radioactive elements". They would be jointly rewarded in 1935 by the Nobel Prize for chemistry for “ the discovery of new artificial radioactive elements”, only a few months after the death of Marie, on 4 July 1934.

(1)This exhibition, in the ESPCI exhibition centre, with the help of the ESPCI Centre for Historical Hesearch was inaugurated in October 2004 in the presence of, among others, the Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanöe.

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