Marie Curie Discoveries

Instructor: Michael Gott

Mike is a veteran of the New Hampshire public school system and has worked in grades 1-12. His role has varied from primary instructor to special needs support.

The woman born as Marie Sklodowska would go on to become Marie Curie, one of the most renowned scientists of all time. She won two Nobel prizes--the first to do so--and led the way to a modern understanding of radiation.

Marie Curie's Road to Brilliant Discovery

On November 7, 1867, the woman the world would know as Marie Curie was born as Maria Sklodowska in what is now modern-day Poland. The daughter of teachers, Maria was one of five children and lost her mother to tuberculosis soon after turning ten years old.

Denied entry into University of Warsaw due to her gender, Marie and her sister conspired about how to afford to go abroad where they could be accepted in college. Marie eventually enrolled at the Sorbonne in France. In 1893, Marie earned a degree in physics, adding a second degree in mathematics the following year. In 1903, she earned a Doctor of Science.

Marie met her future husband Pierre Curie while commissioned to study the magnetic properties of steel. The pair married shortly after and then together altered the world's understanding of radiation. Radiation is energy released from a substance as particles or waves. This includes sunlight and radio waves. Curie, though, realized that in the substances she was studying, the energy was originating from the subatomic level. Her samples were radioactive. Radioactivity is a condition wherein the unstable atoms of an element spontaneously emit radiation as the atomic nuclei change.

Marie Curie's First Major Discovery

Marie Curie expanded on the work of French physicist Henri Becquerel. Becquerel had previously discovered that uranium casts off rays. Through Curie's experiments on uranium rays, she found that the rays were constant regardless of the condition of the uranium. From this observation, Curie theorized that this was caused by the atomic structure of uranium. This was such a new idea that Curie needed to invent a term to describe her hypothesis. Radioactivity was the term that Curie would later attach to this new phenomena.

After she developed this theory, Marie's husband Pierre put his own work on hold to help his wife further explore radioactive materials. Beginning with pitchblende, the Curies discovered a new radioactive element in 1898. They named this element polonium in recognition of Poland, Marie's homeland. It was during this time they also discovered another element called radium. These studies were were made public as part of her doctoral thesis in 1903, with the production of one tenth of a gram of radium chloride.

Shattering Glass Ceilings

In 1903, Marie Curie, along with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Nobel Prizes are awarded in honor of Alfred Nobel, a rich inventor who wished to reward those who helped to advance mankind. Marie was the first woman to ever win this award. The Curies were now celebrities within the world of science. They used their prize money to continue their research.

Marie Curie in 1903

Marie Curie's life would change in 1906 after Pierre was killed in an accident involving a horse-drawn carriage. With two daughters and overcome by grief, Curie took over her husband's teaching post at the Sorbonne. In doing so she became the institution's first female professor.

Five years after the death of Pierre, Marie would win a second Nobel prize, this time in the field of chemistry. She won this honor for discovering and proving the existence of radium and polonium. Though she won the award by herself, in her acceptance speech she shared the honor with Pierre. With her 1911 Nobel Prize win, Marie became the first person to ever win the prestigious award twice.

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