Season 1
From the Travel Journal: Paris: Marie and Pierre Curie – The Physics of Partnership

The story of a couple whose love of ideas and knowledge – and each other – changed the world.

by DOMINIQUE FERRARI

Welcome to the weirdest wedding season since the phrase “wedding season” became a thing. This is a summer without viral wedding party entrances, first dances, or magic vows exchanged in front of family and friends. It’s a summer without date nights or romantic restaurant proposals. It’s a summer without dates, period, according to my single friends who’ve tried Zoom dating.

So with that said, we went on a quest to fill that void and bring some love and romance back into everyone’s day — even for a few minutes. And to do it, we went to the most romantic city in the world — the City of Love, Paris France — to find a truly great love story. And Paris didn’t disappoint.  

This week, The Ticket presents one of the greatest, most badass love stories ever to take place in the City of Love. And it’s a love story that changed the world.

MARIE AND PIERRE CURIE – THE PHYSICS OF PARTNERSHIP

There are many kinds of love. Romantic love, brotherly love, the love of kin, and the love of true crime documentaries on Netflix even though they make you despair for humanity. True love isn’t only relegated to meet cutes and marriage. And there’s another love going on right now all around the world. It’s a networked, cooperative kind of love. It involves tens of thousands of people in a relationship. And it just might save the world. 

It’s the love of science and knowledge.

As the pandemic brings the world to its knees, crushes economies, and takes lives – scientists of every race, creed, nationality, and gender are working to find a vaccine. In normal times, pursuing less urgent life-or-death quests – science is an incredibly competitive field. Scientists and the organizations they work for do their best to protect their work and patent their findings. But right now, something different is going on. The borders – national and corporate – that typically exist between scientists have become transparent. In a quest to find a cure for COVID-19, the scientific community has come together in a marriage of sorts. Researchers released the genetic sequencing of COVID-19 on an open source platform so that everyone who wanted to take a crack at defeating it could. They’re sharing information and ideas. Many companies are rejecting the idea of Vaccine Nationalism (the idea that one country should have proprietary access to a vaccine first). Never have so many incredible, smart, and dedicated scientists cooperated to achieve one singular goal in such a short amount of time. 

That is a kind of love. 

And so, as we went looking for a love story in Paris to tell this week – to help fill everyone’s emotional tanks just a bit amid so much pain and uncertainty – the love story we found is about a couple whose love of ideas and knowledge – and of each other – changed the world. 

We think it’s the perfect love story for our time. They are Marie and Pierre Curie.

One of science’s most enduring power couples, Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, came together through a shared love of science and research. They spent their lives together working side by side, sharing ground-breaking discoveries, AND sharing a Nobel Prize. Now, that’s #couplegoals.

Feminist Post-it: can we just revel for a moment in “Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre”? That right there is a Nobel-worthy breakthrough in a sentence. 

PART I.

Marie Curie was born as Manya Skłodowska in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland and her early life was rough. She was raised during the Russian occupation of Poland – a time of oppression and social upheaval. Her mother died of tuberculosis when she was ten. And then, although she showed early promise as a prodigy in math and literature, Manya was kept from school by said Russian occupation. But Manya’s father, a science teacher himself, wouldn’t have it. He sent Manya to a secret school called the “Flying University” (sometimes translated as Floating University). It was so dubbed because it constantly changed locations to stay hidden from the Russians. At incredible risk, the students and teachers of the Flying University pursued knowledge. 

Pandemic Post-it: possible rebrand of “virtual school” as the Flying University? PR is everything.

The risk was worth it – Manya was clearly brilliant, eventually becoming an instructor herself. After the Flying University, she was, in fact ready to fly – but the family didn’t have enough money to send her to university. So Manya took a job as a governess and saved up as much money as she could. Now, a little sidenote here. Manya would come to be known in her life as an incredibly direct and pragmatic person – in fact, some described her as a bit aloof when it came to social relationships. Warm and cuddly were just not her things. Neither was hands on mothering – and this was a fact that would dog her later in her career as people tried to discount and smear her contributions to science. Sound familiar, ladies?

Finally, at 24, Manya had saved enough. She purchased a train ticket to Paris and enrolled at the Sorbonne. She arrived in Paris in the autumn of 1891 with just enough money to afford her tuition and a small room near the university in the Latin Quarter of Paris. To make ends meet, she washed glassware in the lab and wore extra clothes in the winter. And in 1893, she received a degree in physics. Her career was on its way. She began work at the industrial laboratory of Professor Gabriel Lippmann and continued her studies, earning a second degree in 1894. That was also the year she met Pierre.

PART II.

At 35, Pierre Curie was a bit older than Manya, who by then had romanticized her name to Marie. At the time, Pierre was working as a physicist at a French technical college and had been studying crystals and magnetism. A decade earlier, he and his brother Jacques had discovered piezoelectricity, the electric charge produced in solid materials under pressure. To do so, they had invented something called the piezoelectric quartz electrometer. Now, let’s be honest – I don’t know what any of that means or what that machine is. But for now, just remember that he invented it because it’s proof that Marie and Pierre were a perfect pair from the start. 

They met because Marie was looking for a larger lab space to do her work in. A mutual friend and fellow Polish physicist, Professor Józef Wierusz-Kowalski, thought Pierre had just such a space (he definitely didn’t) and so introduced them. Pierre didn’t have the space, but he helped Marie find one, and they struck up a friendship. Whatever Pierre and Marie’s gap in age, there was no gap in intellect. Pierre wrote of their relationship, 

It would…be a beautiful thing to pass through life together hypnotized in our dreams: your dream for your country; our dream for humanity; our dream for science.

And as they shared their dreams and ideas about science and the world, their relationship deepened. Pierre fell for Marie and within a year, he proposed. She said no. 

She wanted to go back to Poland and teach physics there. Pierre was bereft – he offered to move with her to Poland, even if it meant being “reduced to teaching French”, he said. But he wouldn’t have to make the move, because Marie was refused a position at Krakow University. She had a technical defect in her work, they said. The defect: it was done by a woman. So, no job for Marie. She was crushed, but Pierre sent her a letter encouraging her to return to Paris and pursue a Ph.D. She agreed. 

And she also said yes to the dress.  But not that dress. 

PART III.

Before their wedding, Marie – again, practical to a fault at times – asked for Pierre to get her a dark blue dress because she said she wanted something she could actually wear to the lab after the wedding. So she married Pierre in a non-religious ceremony in Sceaux, just outside Paris, in a dark blue dress. Marie also eschewed patriarchal naming convention and retained her own last name and added Pierre’s, using both last names for her entire career – Marie Skłodowska Curie. Today just about everyone calls her Marie Curie – but really, we would all do well to honor the name she made a point to keep for herself and give her the extra 3 syllables. 

The newlywed Skłodowska-Curies enjoyed taking long bike rides and traveling abroad – and they grew closer and closer. And Marie began her Ph.D. She had decided to research uranium rays for her thesis. And this is where that thingamabob that Pierre had invented over a decade earlier would come into play. 

The existence of X-Rays had just been discovered in 1895, and later, Henri Becquerel had discovered that uranium salts emitted rays that resembled X-rays – but nobody really understood what they were or how they were being produced. Marie wanted to know and, using her husband’s invention – the electrometer – she set out on a years long journey to figure it out. She worked in a small, poorly ventilated shed for years, painstakingly grinding down samples of different ores and minerals trying to get to the root of it. Pierre was often there with her – and she bounced ideas off him regularly. And of course, it was his machine helping her do her work. But make no mistake (because she left copious amounts of writing so that there would be none) – the ideas were hers. Pierre was a partner and worked alongside Marie for all those years, helping her isolate materials and conduct experiments. But the ideas and the experiments – they were Marie’s. 

As they toiled away, their first daughter Irene was born. Knowing how important their work was to them, Pierre’s father moved in with the couple to help take care of Irene, allowing them to continue their feverish work. 

Finally, in 1898, after years of research and experiments in that cramped shed, Marie – with Pierre’s help – had identified a brand new, radioactive element: Polonium. She had also coined the term radioactive (you’re welcome Imagine Dragons). In July of that year, they released a joint paper revealing their discovery. By December, they had discovered yet another radioactive element: Radium. From there, their work was on fire. 

Between 1898 and 1902, the Curies published, together and separately, 32 scientific papers. One of those papers revealed that, when exposed to radium, tumor cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells. Incredible. 

In 1900, Marie became the first female faculty member at the École Normale Supérieure. In 1903, she received her Ph.D. and she and Pierre were invited to the Royal Institution in London to speak about their discoveries in radioactivity. However, as a woman, Marie was not allowed on stage and so Pierre alone gave the talk. 

In a page out of today’s pandemic playbook, the Skłodowska-Curies did not patent their findings on radium. So though they benefited little from them, countless other researchers and companies were able to build on their discoveries and run with them, producing a revolution in radiation technology. 

That year, in 1903, the Skłodowska-Curies, along with Henri Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Initially, Marie had been left off of the nomination. But one of the members of the Nobel board alerted Pierre behind the scenes. Pierre forcefully advocated for Marie to be included in the nomination. They relented. And Marie became the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize.

PART IV.

In 1904, Marie gave birth to their second daughter, Ève. But tragedy was around the corner, quite literally.

In 1906, lost in thought one day, Pierre was crossing the Rue Dauphine in heavy rain when he was hit and killed instantly by a horse drawn carriage. Marie was devastated. Their relationship was the kind of true and complete fusion that happens when two perfect fits come together. From the moment they met, Pierre had been her biggest champion and supporter. Bucking the convention of the times (and OUR times, let’s be honest) he was often willing and ready to put his professional aims aside so she could pursue hers. He was more than her romantic match – he was her professional partner, her intellectual equal, and – when the oppression of the time required it – her passionate advocate. 

Broken, but determined to continue their work, Marie continued her research. She experienced countless other shorts throughout the years. And now, without someone like Pierre – who was willing to use his privilege to fight for her – she was at the mercy of the misogyny of the time. She was on one hand, celebrated in France as a Nobel Prize winner, but – when the xenophobia of the times ramped up – also vilified as: a terrible mother, a scientific hack who hadn’t really done the work herself, a foreigner who was hiding the fact that she was Jewish (she wasn’t and also STOPITSTOPITSTOPIT), and a homewrecker. On that last claim, the public was so outraged when she began dating a former student of Pierre’s who was five year her junior, that an angry mob showed up at her house, forcing Marie to flee to her daughter’s house for safety. 

But still, she continued on. She eventually isolated radium and received another Nobel Prize in Chemistry. To this day she remains one of only two humans in history to receive Nobel Prizes in different disciplines. Throughout this time, she also battled depression – something she’d suffered with as a child and again after Pierre’s death. 

In 1914, she realized a dream of she and Pierre’s when she established the Radium Institute. It was built on a street that was renamed Rue Pierre-Curie. They had spent their lives together struggling to find lab space to conduct their work. Now, they had their own institute.

PARK V.

When World War I broke out that summer of 1914, Marie recognized that her earlier work in radiation and X-rays would be needed. She quickly developed a mobile X-ray unit that could be sent to the front lines to treat soldiers. These mobile X-ray trucks became known as Petite Curies. Assisted by her 17-year-old daughter Irène, Curie directed the installation of 20 mobile radiological vehicles and another 200 radiological units at field hospitals in the first year of the war. These Petite Curies no doubt saved countless lives and limbs; it’s estimated over 1 million French soldiers were treated with them. And yet, the French Government never recognized any of her work. But the world did.

After the war, Marie was sent on a world tour to talk about her Nobel-worthy discoveries. And she continued to work in and build the Radium Institute. Eventually, it would produce FOUR more Nobel Prize winners. 

And one of them was she and Pierre’s own daughter, Irène. 

Marie Skłodowska-Curie once remarked, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” 

Marie and Pierre were utterly devoted to each other – but also to the pursuit of understanding as much as we could about the world so that there was less to fear. The love they had for each other and for science changed the world we live in today.

Today, scientists around the world are working overtime to make the discoveries that will bring Marie’s words to life. Though money and fame and patents surely await the people who discover it first – there can be no doubt that the real fire burning underneath all of it – the fire that brought all these scientists to the laboratory in the first place is a passion for finding answers and making new discoveries. 

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.