Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking

By William H. Cropper | Go to book overview

20
Opening Doors
Marie Curie

Maria and Marie

Her life was, in a word, heroic. Marie Curie was absolutely unstoppable in any task she undertook, no matter what the obstacles. “First principle: never let one's self be beaten down by persons or by events,” she wrote in a letter to a friend when she was twenty-one. At the time, she was enduring life as a governess in a small town in Poland and dreaming of a university education in Paris. Student life at the Sorbonne eventually became a reality, and despite an erratic secondary education in Warsaw, she overcame the deficiencies, placed first in her licence ès sciences examination (among 1,825 students, 23 of them women), and second in the licence ès mathematiques examination. She chose as a topic for a doctoral thesis an immensely difficult study of the recently discovered phenomena of radioactivity. For that work she received a Nobel Prize, the first woman to do so, and later a second Nobel Prize; she was the first scientist, man or woman, to be so honored. She was the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne, and came within two votes of being the first woman elected to the Académie des sciences (the only time in her life she allowed herself to be “beaten down”). During World War I, she designed and directed the operation of a fleet of mobile x-ray radiology units amidst the horrors and chaos of the western front. After the war, she became a superb laboratory director, taking on not only the scientific duties, which she loved, but also the chores of fund-raising and public relations, which she detested.

She was born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw. Except in the patriotic spirit of its citizens, Poland did not then exist as a nation. At the end of the eighteenth century, the country had been carved into three provinces by Russia, Austria, and Prussia; Warsaw was oppressively ruled by Russia. Maria's father, Wladyslaw, was a professor of physics and mathematics in a government (Russiancontrolled) secondary school, but he suffered a series of demotions because of political differences with his Russian superiors. Finally he was forced to run a private boarding school in his home. “I found… ready help [in mathematics

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Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • I - Historical Synopsis 3
  • 1 - How the Heavens Go 5
  • 2 - A Man Obsessed 18
  • II - Historical Synopsis 41
  • 3 - A Tale of Two Revolutions 43
  • 4 - On the Dark Side 51
  • 5 - A Holy Undertaking 59
  • 6 - Unities and a Unifier 71
  • 7 - The Scientist as Virtuoso 78
  • 8 - The Road to Entropy 93
  • 9 - The Greatest Simplicity 106
  • 10 - The Last Law 124
  • III - Historical Synopsis 135
  • 11 - A Force of Nature 137
  • 12 - The Scientist as Magician 154
  • IV - Historical Synopsis 177
  • 13 - Molecules and Entropy 179
  • V - Historical Synopsis 201
  • 14 - Adventure in Thought 203
  • VI - Historical Synopsis 229
  • 15 - Reluctant Revolutionary 231
  • 16 - Science by Conversation 242
  • 17 - The Scientist as Critic 256
  • 18 - Matrix Mechanics 263
  • 19 - Wave Mechanics 275
  • VII - Historical Synopsis 293
  • 20 - Opening Doors 295
  • 21 - On the Crest of a Wave 308
  • 22 - Physics and Friendships 330
  • 23 - Complete Physicist 344
  • VIII - Historical Synopsis 363
  • 24 - Iγ·∂ψ = Mψ 365
  • 25 - What Do You Care? 376
  • 26 - Telling the Tale of the Quarks 403
  • IX - Historical Synopsis 421
  • 27 - Beyond the Galaxy 423
  • 28 - Ideal Scholar 438
  • 29 - Affliction, Fame, and Fortune 452
  • Chronology of the Main Events 464
  • Glossary 469
  • Invitation to More Reading 478
  • Index 485
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