Role of Chemistry

A Commitment to Truth
The year 2003 is the 100th anniversary of Madame Curie’s
first Nobel Prize. In 1903, she, along with her husband, Pierre
Curie, and the physicist Henri Becquerel, won the prestigious
prize in physics for their joint work in radioactivity. It was only
the third year that the prize had been given, and Marie was the
first woman to receive it. Eight years later, Marie Curie
received an unprecedented second Nobel Prize, this time in
chemistry, for her work with radium.
The genius of Marie Curie can best be understood from the
standpoint of her commitment to truth. Curie was a friend
and colleague of the great Russian scientist Vladimir
Vernadsky. Vernadsky spent a great deal of time working in
the Paris Radium Institute, which she created in 1914, and
ran until her death in 1934. Indeed, our biosphere had been
transformed by the creative work of Curie, Vernadsky,
Pasteur, and many others—a change imposed upon it via
Madame Curie’s discovery of the radioactive substances
radium and polonium, her initial hypothesis on the nature of
uranium being a radioactive substance (she was the first to use
the term, “radioactivity”), and her correct insight into the
power of uranium (and that of all radioactive substances) as
derived from the atom itself, was revolutionary. Her hypothesis
of the existence of other radioactive substances, and her
relentless search for those substances in mountains of discarded
pitchblende (a uranium ore), under the most deplorable
and hazardous conditions, is the stuff legends are made of—
but it is also true.
Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery totally transformed the
physical universe in which we live. Although it is true (and
often repeated) that Marie and Pierre Curie’s work in radioactive
substances took a toll on their physical well-being, they
would not want to be remembered as “victims” or “martyrs” to
the nuclear age. They were deeply committed scientists, who
loved truth and...