Understanding the atom
In the case of Marie (Skodowskla) Curie - the discoverer of radioactivity - the ultimate sacrifice was her life.
The Polish/French physicist and chemist is widely believed to have died from exposure to the radioactive materials she carried around in test tubes in the pockets of her lab coat. In fact, valuable Curie research papers from the 1890s are today still considered too radioactive to touch – and are stored safely away in lead boxes.
How much is a scientist willing to sacrifice in pursuit of their goal? Was it all worth it? For the millions of cancer sufferers around the world whose tumours have been successfully treated with radiotherapy; or all those who have benefitted from a simple X-ray; the answer must surely be a resounding ‘yes’.
Curie’s pioneering work – first in the discovery of two new elements in the period table of radium and polonium; and secondly in their development and application for the good of mankind – won her two Nobel Prizes. She remains one of only four people – male or female – to achieve this in two different disciplines (chemistry and physics).
At the core of Curie’s work was the understanding of the atom – largely considered a mystery to 19th century science. Over several decades, Curie and her husband Pierre (killed by a horse & carriage in 1906) conducted exhaustive and exhausting work, much of which focused on uranium rays. Curie discovered that the rays remained constant regardless of the condition or form of the uranium – which she declared came from the element's atomic structure. This revolutionary idea created the field of atomic physics, with Curie herself coining the phrase radioactivity to describe it.
Even more extraordinarily, all this was achieved in the face of concerted opposition from the (then all-male) scientific community, particularly in France. Curie received very little funding and in her early career was known to have collapsed on more than one occasion from hunger.
Perhaps Curie’s greatest legacy is a generosity of scientific spirit that even in less commercial times was extraordinary. Curie never patented her radium-isolation process – enabling future generations of scientists to continue value life-saving research unhindered.