I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale.
~ Marie Curie
Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.
~ Marie Curie

Marie Skłodowska Curie was a Polish-French physicist and chemist who is best known for discovery of radium and polonium. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields.


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Maria Skłodowska was born on November 7th, 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. She had four elder siblings and her parents were well-known teachers.

Her father taught mathematics and physics and was also director of two Warsaw gymnasia (secondary schools) for boys. After laboratory instructions were eliminated by Russian authorities, he brought much of lab equipment home for children to use. Due to his pro-Polish stance, he lost his job and had to work at lower-paying positions. The family also lost money on a bad investment. The family lived in poverty and supplemented their income by lodging boys in the house.

Maria's mother operated a prestigious Warsaw boarding school for girls; she resigned from the position after Maria was born. Maria's father was an atheist and her mother a devout Catholic. When Maria was young her sister Zofia died of typhus contracted from a boarder and less than three years later, when Maria was 10 years old, her mother died of tuberculosis. The deaths of her sister and mother prompted Maria to give up Catholicism and become agnostic.

When she was ten years old, Maria began attending the boarding school of J. Sikorska. Afterwards she attended a gymnasium for girls. She graduated gymnasium in 1883 when she received her diploma and a golden medal. Her achievement meant she had to shake hands with the grandmaster of education, much to her dismay since he represented the Russian rule of Poland.

After graduating she suffered from a nervous illness (possibly depression), which left her feeling too tired to do anything. Her father sent her to visit cousins in the countryside, where she could spend a carefree year.

Since women were not allowed to study at the University of Warsaw, Maria and her sister Bronya had to attend “floating university”, a Polish patriotic institution of higher learning that admitted women students. The classes were secretly held at night and regularly changed locations to avoid detection by the czar’s police.

Maria and Bronya knew that to get a true professional education, they would have to go to a major university in Western Europe. They didn't have enough money to both go so they made a pact. Maria would work as a governess to help pay for Bronya’s medical studies in Paris. As soon as Bronya was trained and began to earn money, she would help cover the costs of Maria’s university training. Maria took a job as a governess. She worked in the village of Szczuki for the family of Żorawskis, who were relatives of her father. In her free time she taught the children of the Polish peasant workers how to read, even thought this was illegal. While working for the latter family, she fell in love with their son, Kazimierz Żorawski, a future eminent mathematician. His parents rejected the idea of his marrying the penniless relative, and Kazimierz was unable to oppose them.

Maria returned to Warsaw in 1889. By this time her father managed to become a head of a reform school and was earning more money. He was able to send some money to Bronya each month. He also started to set aside a portion of that subsidy to compensate Maria for the sums she had been sending her sister. They realized that by fall 1891 there will be enough money for Maria to enter the University of Paris. Until then, Maria would work as a governess and a tutor. On Sundays she visited Museum of Industry and Agriculture run by Joseph Boguski, a former assistant of Dmitri Mendeleev. The museum secretly served as an illegal lab for training Polish scientists.

In 1891 Maria set off to Paris and traveled as economically as possible. She enrolled Sorbonne university. It was during enrollment when she changed her name Maria to its French version Marie.

Scientific discoveries

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In December 1895, a German physicist, Wilhelm Roentgen, had discovered rays that could travel through solid wood or flesh. A few months later a French physicist, Henri Becquerel, discovered that minerals containing uranium also gave off rays. Most scientists took great interest in Roentgen's rays and enthusiastically studied their characteristics. Uranium rays, which they considered pretty much the same as Roentgen's X-rays except weaker, were mostly ignored. Since there was little work done on uranium rays, Marie decided that she will study them.

Curie electrometer

"Curie electrometer" - Marie Curie was lucky to have at hand just the right kind of instrument—a very sensitive and precise device—invented about 15 years earlier by Pierre Curie and his brother, Jacques.

Marie used storeroom in the Paris Municipal School, where her husband, Pierre Curie, was now a professor, as a lab. She started off by studying a variety of chemical compounds that contained uranium. Using "Curie electrometer" she measured the strength of the rays from materials containing uranium compounds. Her research showed that the strength of the rays that came out depended only on the amount of uranium in the compound. It had nothing to do with whether the material was solid or powdered, dry or wet, pure or combined with other chemical elements.


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