Marie Curie, 150 years on

Marie Curie, 150 years on

First woman to be a professor at a French University; first to receive a Nobel Prize; only recipient of two Science Nobel Prizes. Her name used for prestigious research grants, her portrait on medals and currencies. Someone who, because she was a woman, was denied a higher education in her home country; forbidden to give lectures in prestigious institutions; considered an “assistant” in the very research she initiated and led; initially “forgotten” from her Nobel Prize nomination. Someone who, because she was Polish, had to face burning xenophobia – her presence in France was considered by a contemporary journalist, as a proof that the country was “in the grip of a bunch of dirty foreigners, who plunder it, soil it, dishonour it.”

As 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Marie Curie, Bluesci pays hommage to the scientist with a visual project featuring a series of female early career researchers’ interviews.

Artwork by Catherine Prowse, Carys Boughton, Irene Captas and Martha Dillon

150 years after her birth, Marie Curie has become more than a woman, or even a brilliant scientist. She is an inspiration, a genius, in a word: an icon. Marie Curie was indeed an exceptional researcher who overcame with grit and bravery much scientific and personal challenges, and this recognition is well-deserved.

But if icons may be necessary, they can also be dangerous. They steal the spotlight, leaving everyone else in the shadows. It can be tempting to see iconic women of the past as fundamentally different from a sea of female contemporaries focusing on domestic affairs and daily chores. Still, Curie was supported in her education by her family, married to a man who recognised her as equal and gave her credit even when the world pressured him not to. How many of her fellow women shared her intelligence, her passion for discovery, her dedication to knowledge but did not find support to pursue these interests? How many were pushed to the background of their own stories, pigeonholed in society-sanctioned occupations or relegated to assistant roles?

Highlighting what made Marie Curie exceptional should not make us forget the institutional pressures that prevented – and still prevent today – other women from pursuing the career they desired, no matter how humble. Icons who turn into tokens can hinder us from re-examining the past and potentially discovering other strong female scientists, or critically assessing the present.

Deemed inspirational, we feel drawn to look up to icons, but doing so can also make us feel small and unworthy. For us, celebrating Marie Curie meant more than just honouring the woman herself and emphasising her uniqueness. On the contrary, we believe in paying homage to what she shares with many men and women: her passion and thirst for scientific knowledge. Marie Curie is not to be gazed at from afar: she is to be celebrated by fostering, in ourselves and others, the scientific spirit she so brilliantly demonstrated. A century and a half after her birth, we chose to give a voice to three female early career researchers and illustrate, with the help of talented artists, how this new generation shows in its daily work some of the passion and spirit Marie Curie put in hers.

Artwork by Carys Boughton

“For me, physics is contemplating nature; that’s often one of the most beautiful things that you can do in this world.”

“All my life through, the new sights of Nature made me rejoice like a child.”

Two quotes, two women centuries apart, and yet the same passion, the same childish awe at trying to understand what makes the universe tick. The first sentence belongs to Bianca Veglia, a Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellow in the QUASAR group of the University of Liverpool who is also part of the Accelerators Validating Antimatter (AVA) network; the second to Marie Curie herself.

Why was it that, after extracting uranium from an ore called pitchblende, the leftover was more radioactive than pure uranium itself? Answering this question set Marie Curie on the track to two Nobel Prizes, and the discovery of two new elements: radium and polonium.

Why is it that the universe is made of matter and there is barely any antimatter around, while our current models of our Universe predict that an equal amount of matter and antimatter was created during the Big Bang? Antimatter particles have the same characteristics as their matter particles counterparts except for an opposite charge. Matter and antimatter particles annihilate each other upon meeting – so how is it that anything exists at all? Solving this paradox would completely reshape the theories that describe our universe.

Veglia explains:  “[After my Masters], I easily found a position at a big credit risk management company because they hire lots of physicists. The work wasn’t bad but it was routine and I missed physics too much. I needed to feel part of something important.” Now her research, partly conducted at CERN, contributes to trying to find a clue as to why our Universe is as we know it.

She works on a project where she looks at how to build and enhance a new source of antimatter. She says: “This is exciting because this machine, ELENA, will provide a big number of very low energetic antiprotons to many different experiments at CERN […] and hopefully we will be having some interesting results about antimatter in the next few years. Very recently they used the first antiprotons [in ELENA]. I went there for two weeks and they were trying to set the machine with all the correct values in the magnetic field and this kind of stuff. It was really exciting to be there.”

Much has changed in the academic world since the days of Marie Curie, especially for female scientists. But their passion for research feels very much the same; whether it is now or 150 years ago, women stand right at the border with the unknown, relentlessly pushing the boundaries of knowledge.

Artwork by Catherine Prowse (Instagram: @catherineprowse)

There are over 30,000 particle accelerators currently in action in the world. A few, like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), propel particles to nearly the speed of light so that scientists can find and study the building blocks of our universe. The vast majority however are used in industrial applications, such as purifying water, sterilising hospital rooms, improving materials used in airplanes or even producing chocolate.

Dr Alex Alexandrova, a former Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellow within the Department of Physics at Liverpool University, has recently co-founded technology company D-Beam, which spins out the technology created at CERN to measure and monitor particle beams. These new methods will be applied in accelerators around the world and are expected to significantly improve industrial and medical uses of these machines.

“I think I always was quite interested in seeing how the work I’m doing is actually influencing, building something that has direct application, demonstrates use right away, rather than making some new research and maybe never see how it’s going to be applied. I’m a kind of goal oriented person who wants to see the results, maybe not immediately but in the near future,” explains Alexandrova.

Theoretical research crossing over to the so-called “real world” is a longstanding tradition, one that the Curies wholly partook in. Yet while much as been written about the Curies’ lives and academic work, how closely enmeshed their research was with industrial ventures has rarely been discussed.

As Alexandrova explains: “I call it restless mind: you’re always looking for something, which is probably why [Marie Curie] became involved in industry, because she reached a certain point and wondered what to do next. I found this inspiring.”

The Curies were always reluctant to monetize their research; in fact, they purposefully refused to patent her discovery of radium, arguing that elements belonged to humankind, not one person. And still, they regularly worked very closely with industrials, many of whom they had trained themselves as researchers. As it is the case in modern accelerator science, most of the transfer of knowledge between research and industry occurred in the fields of technical improvements and advances in measurements.

With Marie Curie’s discovery of radium, an entire industry quickly appeared and flourished. From cancer to skin treatment, the new substance was promised to cure all ailments – its dangerous properties were still unknown – prompting a strong demand. Obtaining radium however was a gruelling process involving shifting through tons of ore to obtain less than a gram of the precious element. For years, Marie and Pierre Curie did so by hand, in an uninsulated shed, with very little financial or human support from their university. Working closely with chemists and industrials, they improved the extraction process, and were able to rely on proper commercial facilities that allowed them to have access to higher quantities of the precious substance.

As the popularity of radium grew, the Curies were eager to keep control of the fate of their discovery. Their laboratory invented most of the instruments used to precisely measure radioactivity, which was becoming essential for industrial and medical applications, as well as commercial exchanges. The Curie – named after Marie – became the official unit of radioactivity, and the laboratory soon offered measurement services. Thanks to these efforts, the French radium industry rapidly became the leader in the world, in turn allowing research to stay at the cutting edge.

Similarly, Alexandrova discusses the impacts the measurement devices designed by D-Beam will have: “We are offering a device which shows the losses, or the propagation of the particles along the whole beam. It is an optical beam loss monitor. This allows you to see if there is some sort of damage along the particle accelerator as well, so it will save money in terms of changing the equipment, and it will improve the quality of the beam at the end. For example if it is a proton beam [used in proton beam therapy, a new type of radiotherapy] it is important what kind of properties of the beam are being focused on the tumour.”

Whether it is for radium or particle accelerators, the efforts made by a few researchers to bring their theoretical research into industry ensures that society as a whole reaps the rewards brought by scientific endeavours.

Artwork by Irene Taptas (Instagram: irenetaptas_illustration)

It is 1914, and in muddy lands between Germany and France pieces of metal grovel their way inside the flesh of men. Finding where shrapnel has lodged itself inside soldiers’ bodies as quickly as possible is of utmost importance – but how can it be done? Newly arrived at the front, even though she could have stayed safely behind, Marie Curie set to work.

With the science of radiography just budding, Curie felt she had a role to play in its development. X-rays, which penetrate and bounce off materials to different degrees, could spot shrapnel and bullets, guiding the hands of the surgeons and allowing the early triage of patients. However, Curie quickly realised that transporting the wounded to the hospital represented a loss of time and human lives. X-ray machines needed to go to the front, where they could help assessing who needed urgent care the most.

Curie managed to get hold of trucks and fitted them with X-ray machines, creating mobile units later called “petites Curies”. In 1916, she got her driving licence – unusual for a woman at the time – and took the vehicles to the front lines herself. The experience profoundly affected her, but she never wavered. Her daughter Irene even joined her as soon as she turned 18. Curie also trained around 200 women from various social backgrounds to be radiographers themselves. The “Petites Curies”, and Marie Curie herself, are estimated to have saved thousands of lives – yet she never received any recognition by the French government for the work she conducted.

The radium she discovered was also starting to be used widely in the fight against cancer. Now, the next-generation of radiotherapy is emerging which relies on different types of particles to kill cancerous cells. Proton beam therapy, which uses protons accelerated to nearly the speed of light, targets tumours with minimal damage to healthy tissues. A few centres around the world, including the UK, already offer this new technology for difficult cancers.

Jacinta Yap is a Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellow in the QUASAR group of the University of Liverpool, and is part of the Optimising Medical Accelerator (OMA) training network. She currently researches ways of better understanding, modelling and improving the proton beams used to treat people. “Medical physics got the science, the medicine, the physics, all the technical aspects from engineering that I can definitely bring across,” she recalls as she explains what drove her to applying her mind to enhancing this new type of radiotherapy. Ultimately though, she will also work “on the front line”, as a medical physicist herself, and she plans on helping design the treatment plans for cancer patients undergoing proton beam therapy. As she puts it: “I will work in a hospital and interact with patients, doctors and machines, seeing first-hand the difference I am making.”

We often think of scientists as lonely figures standing in their laboratory, working towards improving the fate of humankind but away from the people whose lives they try to better. Yet, decade after decade some of its members – such as Marie Curie and Jacinta Yap – are ready to take a step, bringing their knowledge directly to where it is most needed.