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The scientist who cracked the secret of radioactivity

Already from a young age, Marie Curie was outstanding in her skills, and even though in her time women were forbidden to study science at the university, she managed to break the path for those who came after her. She was a highly respected scientist and the first person to receive two Nobel Prizes, and her main contribution was in the study of radioactive radiation 

Marie Curie. Photo: shutterstock
Marie Curie. Photo: shutterstock


Article: Bat Sheva and Gon Galamidi, Young Galileo



In a dim laboratory in Paris in 1898, the scientist Marie Curie stands stirring a pot of bubbling ore (a chemical compound that contains uranium. At high temperatures, the ore decomposes and pure uranium is produced from it), and her face is covered with beads of sweat. A few hours later, in the dead of night, she and her scientist husband Pierre Curie return to the scene of the experiment - and cannot believe their eyes. A glowing spot formed in the test plate illuminates the room with a bluish light. "Ho Pierre!" Marie whispers, her eyes watering with excitement, "Could it be? Is this really the thing?"

A few years later streets in Paris are named after Marie and Pierre Curie, Marie's portrait is printed on banknotes and her face appears on stamps and coins. The World War I ambulances, which were adapted to carry X-ray equipment, were known as "Le Petit Curie" (The Little Curies), and films about the legendary scientist are shown in the cinema.


The gold medal for the outstanding student

Marie Sklodowska was born on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, Poland, the youngest of five children in her family. The family lives in difficult conditions after her father was fired from his job due to his political views. All the Sklodowski family children were exceptionally talented and excellent students, and Marie surpassed them all. When she was four years old, she watched her older sister struggle to read a book. Marie took the book from her and read the first sentence fluently and without any mistakes! She looked around, saw everyone stunned, and immediately burst into tears because she was afraid that she had done something forbidden. "I didn't do it on purpose," Marie cried, "but it was so easy!"

Marie had an extraordinary memory. A few years later a family friend read aloud a beautiful poem, and Marie asked him for a copy of the poem. The friend wanted to tease little Marie a little and told her that if her memory was that great, he would simply read the poem to her again, and she would already remember it by heart. He read the poem in her ear. She entered the other room, and after half an hour she left it and the poem was written on a page perfectly.

When Marie was seven, her sister died of the typhus epidemic, and three years later her mother died of tuberculosis. Following the disasters, Marie was a sad and introverted child, and often cried. Despite her condition, she continued to study diligently and even graduated from the government gymnasium as the star of the class, with the gold medal for the outstanding student of the year. She was 15 at the time.


The first woman at the university

Marie of course wanted to continue studying science at university, but unfortunately, in Poland at that time (under Russian rule) girls were forbidden to study! Did you think that this is what will stand in the path of the future scientist? The determined Marie did not give up, and continued her studies independently at home, and also at a secret university, where classes were given at night in different places. At the same time, she took care of the children to support her family, and mainly to save money for studies abroad.

Marie probably understood that she was destined to be a great scientist, but she knew that it depended on hard work. This is how she wrote a few years later: "Great discoveries do not erupt from the feverish minds of scientists ripe and ready for use, but are the result of prolonged work."

A few years passed, and at the age of 24 Marie moved to Paris and began studying chemistry and physics at the university. She was the first woman to study there! She studied during the day and taught at night to make a living, and she barely had money for a turnip of bread. After two years, she completed a degree in physics, and immediately went on to study for a master's degree. She received financial aid from the university.

One day she was invited to work in the laboratory of a young scientist named Pierre Curie, who conducted studies in magnetism. The two began working long hours together, and slowly, apart from their shared love of science, their love also blossomed. The young scientists married and had two daughters - Eva and Iren.


The first woman to win a Nobel Prize

Of all the scientific topics that Marie came across in her studies, one topic particularly fascinated her: a mysterious radiation discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel, emitted by materials containing uranium. This radiation was so powerful that it even managed to penetrate the body, like X-ray radiation that was discovered a few years earlier.

This mysterious radiation had a particularly strange property: it did not depend on an external source, like X-rays and other types of radiation. It seems that this radiation emanated from the material itself, and no one really knew how to explain what all this radiation was doing inside the uranium and how it got there.

This mysterious radiation also began to fascinate Pierre, Marie's husband, and he abandoned his research in magnetism and joined her in her research. Marie Curie's explanation of radiation was truly revolutionary: she thought that the source of radiation is in the energy stored in the atoms themselves and in the processes that take place in them, completely contrary to what was accepted at the time - that atoms cannot be changed. Marie even gave this radiation its well-known name: radioactive radiation (radio = radiant, active = active).

In 1903, the Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, "in recognition of the outstanding contribution they achieved through their joint research on the phenomenon of radiation discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel". Marie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.


The first person to win two Nobel Prizes

Then another tragedy struck poor Marie. When their little daughter was only seven months old, Pierre was killed in a car accident - he was run over by a horse-drawn carriage. Since then, Marie had to do everything herself: she continued her research alone while raising her two little daughters, she began teaching at the University of Paris instead of her husband, and was the first woman to teach there. She even developed innovative and fascinating teaching methods, for example conducting an experiment in front of the students in class.

Marie also continued the research she had begun with her husband on two new radioactive substances that were unknown until then - one she called "polonium" after Poland, her home country, and the other - "radium", because in the dark it glows with a bluish light (radius in Latin means " A ray of light"). She was amazed to discover that one gram of radium has energy capable of lifting a weight of ten thousand tons to a height of one and a half kilometers! For the discovery of these two substances Marie won another Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry. She was the first person to win two Nobel Prizes.

Even with two Nobel Prizes, she could not be admitted to the French National Academy of Sciences, because she was a woman. Marie did not let this irritating prejudice discourage her, and began to investigate the subject of radium therapy.

The problem was that the enormous energy that the radioactive materials emit is very dangerous to the body, but Marie didn't know that. She worked in a laboratory without radiation protection, and as a result her health was severely damaged; She contracted blood cancer and died at the age of 67.


The radiation that destroys cancerous tumors

Although Marie Curie's story has many sad parts, it ends with great optimism. Following Marie's recent research, radioactive materials now have very important uses in medicine. When they are injected in tiny amounts into the body, it is possible to follow them easily (thanks to their radiation) and learn about different functions of the body with their help.

The most common use of radioactive radiation is surprisingly precisely in curing cancer: when it is irradiated on the patient's body in appropriate amounts, it is able to destroy cancerous tumors!

From the lecture given by Marie Curie at a college in New York a few years before her death, a quote that shows her pure love for science is especially memorable: "We must not forget that when radium was discovered, no one knew that it would prove to be useful in hospitals. The work was pure science. And this is proof that scientific work does not have to be considered from the point of view of its direct benefit. It must be done for itself, for beautiful science, and then there is always a chance that the scientific discovery can be made, like radium, useful for humanity."


Did you know?

The source of radioactive radiation

Today we already know that the source of radioactive radiation is not in chemical processes in the entire atom, but in nuclear processes that occur only in the nucleus of the atom. The radiation is created by the decay of a large and energetically unstable nucleus. What it means? Just as a cube tower that is too tall is unstable and tends to fall apart easily, so there are atomic nuclei that have too much energy. The nucleus naturally tends, according to the basic laws of physics, to get rid of this unnecessary energy, and this happens when particles such as protons and/or neutrons are ejected from the nucleus.


Did you know?

Three types of radioactive radiation:

Alpha radiation: A stream of particles consisting of two protons and two neutrons. These particles are heavy and relatively slow, so they cannot penetrate deep into the body, but may cause skin burns.

Beta radiation: A beam of electrons that are emitted from the nucleus (a neutron emits an electron and changes to a proton). The radiation can penetrate to a depth of several millimeters in the body and can cause severe injuries and the development of malignant tumors.

Gamma radiation: Electromagnetic radiation (like light) that travels at the speed of light. The most energetic and deadly radiation in the universe, which penetrates even a lead partition several centimeters thick! It can cause serious internal injuries and the development of malignant tumors.



The article appeared in the November issue of Young Galileo – Monthly for curious children

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3 תגובות

  1. We should also thank Marcel Grossman, who helped Einstein in developing the tensors in the theory of relativity.
    A second thanks goes to Aristotle, without the heliocentric model we would not have arrived at the geocentric model.
    And of course, most thanks, to the greatest of all we have brought so far.
    Thank you all. Without you we would not be here.
    And you will all die because because of you we are where we are... 🙂

  2. Speaking of Marie Curie, it might also be worth mentioning the Jewish Lisa Meitner, who quantified Curie's discovery of radiation and linked it to Einstein's formula E=mc^2.

    From Wikipedia:

    "In the Europe of 1939, it was politically impossible for Meitner, who emigrated from Germany due to her Jewish ancestry, to jointly publish her work with Hahn. Hahn published chemical discoveries in January 1939 and Meitner published the physical explanation two months later, along with her physicist nephew Otto Frisch; The two called the process "nuclear fission".[1] Meitner realized that such a chain reaction might cause a big explosion.

    The article caused an uproar in the scientific community; Three Jewish American physicists - Leo Szilard, Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner - were horrified by the unprecedented potential for destruction inherent in the discovery, and by the fact that it was in German hands, and united for a counter-action. The three included in their ranks Albert Einstein, who sent a warning letter to the President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an act that led to the establishment of the Manhattan Project. Meitner refused to join the project, stating:[2]

    "I will have nothing to do with a bomb!"

    My opinion is that if Hitler had appealed to the Jews, he would have won the war. Instead he expelled the Jewish physicists from Germany, and they built the bomb for his enemies.

    Aren't the boss ways wonderful?

  3. Proofreading note - no need to publish - just take note:
    "A chemical compound that contains uranium" - 'uranium' in a whistle, not 'uranium' in a dream.
    An unpunctuated word is better than a wrongly punctuated word.

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