Marie Curie – An Interdisciplinary Genius and Unexpected Inspiration

Welcome back to the 255! We hope that all our students had a fun and relaxing spring break! Especially during these times, it is super important to practice self-care and consistently decompress and treat yourself. This week on the 255 we celebrate the conclusion of Women’s History Month with one last amazing woman that shattered the glass ceiling for women everywhere – Marie Curie! We highlight Marie Curie’s work to demonstrate the groundbreaking precedent she set for women in the sciences and we provide sources you can use to continue researching her amazing career. We also want to highlight some cross disciplinary brilliance and acknowledge National Poetry Month. What does Marie Curie have to do with poetry? Stay tuned to find out!

Marie Curie was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1867. She received a general education in local schools and some scientific training from her father. Marie Curie was involved involved in a students’ revolutionary organization and eventually found it necessary to leave Warsaw, fleeing oppressive Russian domination. She finished her schooling at the Sorbonne in Paris where she obtained Licentiateships in Physics and the Mathematical Scientists. Following the death of her husband, Pierre Curie in 1906, Curie took his place and became the Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences at Sorbonne, the first time a woman ever held this position.

Henri Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity in 1896 inspired the Curies in their researches and analyses which led to the isolation of polonium and radium. Marie Curie developed methods for the separation of radium from radioactive residues in sufficient quantities to allow for its characterization and the careful study of its properties. Curie advocated for the use of radium to alleviate suffering during World War I and she devoted herself – alongside her daughter, Irene – to this remedial work. Marie Curie was held in high esteem and admiration by scientists throughout the world. She was a member of the Conseil du Physique Solvay from 1911 until her death and since 1922 she had been a member of the Committee of Intellectual Co-operation of the League of Nations.

The importance of Marie Curie’s work is reflected in the numerous awards bestowed on her. She received many honorary science, medicine, and law degrees and honorary memberships of learned societies throughout the world. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first and the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two scientific fields. Marie Curie’s contribution to the world of science not only was provided invaluable research into the discovery of polonium and radium but also established a glass-shattering precedent for all women around the world aspiring to enter the world of the sciences. To check out more information on the life of Marie Curie check out the following links below that give you fun articles, podcasts, and videos!

And now, we shift towards the poetic, in a curious and connected tangent. Adrienne Rich is one of America’s most respected poets. Born in Baltimore, MD in 1929, she grew up steeped in the intellectual ambitions of her father, who was a pathologist at Johns Hopkins. She excelled academically, and earned her degree from Radcliff University. She married and had 3 children, but her marriage began to fall apart as she became more politically aware in the 1960’s. She would later say that “the experience of motherhood was eventually to radicalize me.” This new understanding of her personal and political life began to show in her work. Beginning with Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law: Poems 1954-1962 (1963), Rich’s work has explored issues of identity, sexuality, and politics. Best known for her politically-engaged verse from the tumultuous Vietnam War period, Rich’s collection Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 (1973) won the National Book Award. Rich accepted it with fellow-nominees Audre Lorde and Alice Walker on behalf of all women. In addition to the National Book Award, Rich received many awards and commendations for her work, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, and a MacArthur “Genius” Award. She made headlines in 1997 when she refused the National Medal of Arts for political reasons. You can read more about her prolific and thoughtful career here.

We are talking about Adrienne because of a poem she wrote in The Dream of a Common Language called “Power”.

Power

Living in the earth-deposits of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate.

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power.

This poem is a beautiful tribute to Marie Curie, and illustrates the ways art and science can inspire and reinforce one another. Nature often provides artists with majestic subjects and interesting, clear metaphors. Here Rich uses radiation sickness and the images of amber, decaying earth and body, to comment on the emotional landscapes of women, and the lived experience of womanhood. You can read more about the poem, and hear it read aloud by author Cherly Strayed (who includes this poem in her memoir Wild, continuing the women inspiring women train!) here.

We hope you enjoyed our last segment in our Women’s History Month series. It is crucial to recognize the contribution of women like Marie Curie to the world of science and education, and to let them inspire us towards creation like Adrienne Rich! Although Women’s History month is coming to an end, we will keep highlighting the contributions made by women in all fields, and in poetry in particular though April. We hope you’ll take the time to read and write some poetry this month, and explore poets as yet unknown to you. As always stay safe, kind, hydrated and poetic!

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