Non-Fiction Reviews


Marie Curie: A Biography

(2011) Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie, Prometheus, 8.99, pbk, 189 pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14216-2

 

Virtually everyone who has an interest in science must have heard of the late 19th and early 20th century French scientist Marie Curie: the discoverer of element 88 (radium), as well as element 84 (polonium), and of whom a unit of radiation was named. Marie Curie is distinguished by no less than two Nobel Prizes: one for chemistry and one for physics. Some may be aware of her tragically loosing her co-Nobel winning husband (and scientific partner), Pierre, in a road accident in middle age, but other aspects of her life are not common knowledge. For example, the Curies were not financially well off, and indeed on Pierre's death, Marie was advised not to include her small amount of radium in the laboratory's inventory lest it considerable value be included and she be required to pay death duties. Nor that she made a number of enemies due, not of her fault but, because some eminent scientists of the day (including Lord Kelvin) did not believe that radium was a new element.

All these and other key aspects of Marie Curie's life are covered in Ogilvie's concise but eminently readable, and well referenced, biography. The book also has some fascinating, considering their age, photographic plates in its centre pages. This volume could well inspire some young women to embark on scientific studies given that in Marie's time science was very much a man's world. (It is still today as far as a research career goes, albeit less so.) And it may well inspire some young men too. For me the added bonus was that it documents not only a major breakthrough the discovery of a new radioactive element but also gives an example of how there is often resistance to new scientific paradigm. This still goes on today. (I had recently an example of this myself with an IPCC contributing author categorically dismissing abrupt carbon isotope excursion climate events.) Or indeed the uncertainty that goes hand-in-hand with science: in this case the nature of what radioactivity is. In short, for a number of very good reasons, a good biography of Marie Curie makes for worthwhile reading for any scientist. M. B. Ogilvie has done us all a service in penning this book, and Prometheus in bringing it to us.

Jonathan Cowie


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