Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Marie Curie Day

Every year when Ada Lovelace Day comes along I find myself disappointed that Lovelace has been chosen as the symbolic 'woman in science' because her contribution is minimal, the claims about her are overblown and there's a much better role model who really contributed a lot: Marie Curie.
The claim that Lovelace was the 'first programmer' rests on very shaky ground and the prophetic contribution she did make is overlooked. But even that is essentially a dead end: Lovelace isn't a figure who inspired; she's been rediscovered and raised up. That's not to say that she isn't cool: she really did grok what Babbage was doing when others didn't and we know a great deal about Babbage's ideas because of her translation of the famous paper by Menabrea with her famously detailed additional notes, but...

In contrast, check out Marie Curie:
She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman to win in two fields, and the only person to win in multiple sciences. She was also the first female professor at the University of Paris (La Sorbonne), and in 1995 became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris
Her achievements included a theory of radioactivity (a term that she coined), techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two elements, polonium and radium. Under her direction, the world's first studies were conducted into the treatment of neoplasms, using radioactive isotopes. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and in Warsaw, which remain major centres of medical research today.
Here's my favorite picture of Curie. It's a gathering of every important physicist/chemist in the world at the time. Curie is the only woman sitting with Einstein, Bragg, Heisenberg, Dirac, Planck, ... at the Solvay Conference in 1927.


And if that wasn't enough her own daughter Irène Joliot-Curie went on to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935. There's absolutely no doubt that Marie Curie is a scientist of major importance and an inspirational figure. When alive she was something of a celebrity and in 1921 went on a visit to the US which is nicely covered by NIST here and also here.

If you find yourself in Paris do visit the Curie Museum (which is in her now decontaminated laboratory). Here's a look inside the museum.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.

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