Marie Curie's laboratory
Marie Curie, the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different sciences, is probably the most famous woman in the history of science.
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- What was Marie and Pierre Curie's favorite pastime?
- How much did the pitchblende weigh from which Marie and Pierre Curie isolated 0.1 g (0.003 oz) of radium chloride?
Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born in 1867 in Warsaw, as the fifth child of teacher parents. She graduated from the Warsaw secondary school for girls with excellent marks. At that time, however, women did not have the opportunity to enroll at regular universities.
Therefore she worked as a private teacher and governess in the following years, while continuing her scientific studies on her own. For a short time she also had the opportunity to work with her cousin in the chemical laboratory of the Museum of Industry and Agriculture where she gained valuable experience.
In 1891 she followed her sister and moved to Paris. In the same year, she enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris and started her studies in mathematics, physics and chemistry. Two years later she received her degree in Physics, and a year after that, she also obtained a degree in mathematics. At that time she was also working in the laboratory of Gabriel Lippmann (who also received a Nobel Prize later).
She was introduced to Pierre Curie by a common friend, and one year later, they got married. Besides science, they also shared a common interest in cycling.
At first they researched magnetism together, but later they became interested in radioactivity, a phenomenon discovered by Henri Becquerel not long before. As they did not have their own laboratory, they were allowed to use a shed in the school where Pierre worked.
In 1903, Marie Curie became the first woman in France to receive a doctoral degree. In the same year, she and her husband and mentor, Pierre, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics "in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel" (the prize was shared with Henri Becquerel himself). Marie was the first woman ever to receive the prize.
Meanwhile Pierre was appointed as professor at the Sorbonne and started his own laboratory, where Marie became director of research.
Following the tragic death of her husband in 1906, Marie took his place, thus becoming the first female professor at the Sorbonne.
In 1911, she was awarded her second Nobel prize, this time in chemistry, "in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element". Thus she became the first person ever to be awarded two Nobel Prizes.
Her achievements persuaded the French government to support her long-term dream, the establishment of a scientific institute. The Radium Institute was built in Paris in 1914 (In 1932, another Radium Institute was opened in Warsaw, Poland). Here research was conducted in chemistry, physics and medicine. Under Marie Curie's direction, the institute's work proved to be fruitful in practice too. In the 1st World War she developed mobile X-ray units which were commonly called "petites Curies" or "little Curies".
Marie Curie died at the age of 66 in a sanatorium in France, due to aplastic anemia most probably caused by handling radioactive substances for decades. At that time, the effects of radioactive radiation on human health were not yet known.
She was buried in the Pantheon in Paris.
Marie Curie used an electrometer, originally developed by Pierre and his brother, to detect and measure the extremely tiny electric changes that occur due to radioactive radiation. Using this device allowed them to make accurate measurements that lead to important discoveries.
This is how they realized that the radioactivity of pitchblende is much stronger than that of uranium itself, therefore, it must contain another, much more radioactive element. With hard work and processing several tons of minerals, they finally isolated a further two radioactive elements which they named polonium and radium.
Radium (Ra) is a chemical element in Group 2 of the periodic table (alkaline earth metals). It is a radioactive, silvery-white, metallic element. It was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in pitchblende (today known as uraninite) in 1898 and named after the Latin word radius meaning "ray". It is extremely rare; seven tons of uraninite contains approximately 1 g (0.003 oz) of radium.
Its radioactivity is several million times stronger than that of uranium. Radium salts constantly radiate heat and emit a green glow in the dark.
Pure radium is produced from its ores. The ores are solved in bases or acids, then chlorine is added to the solution to form radium chloride. From this, radium is recovered by electrolysis.
The isotope radium-226 has a half-life of 1602 years, therefore Marie Curie's personal belongings (e.g. the notebook she used in the laboratory) will continue to radiate for a very long time yet.
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