Allow me to begin this week's article by making some attempt to adequately explain my intense distain for the scientific discipline of physics. It blows. I'd honestly rather perform open-face surgery on myself with those colorful plastic safety scissors you get in kindergarten than read about wave-particle duality, and the coefficient of friction can pretty much lick my balls because it's a bastard from hell (and apparently that's what bastards from hell do from time to time). Of course, my virulent, seething hatred of this particular branch of science stems from a very logical and reasonable source – I suck at it. Hard. Seriously, I have about as much chance of winning the Nobel Prize in Literature for this website's innovative work in the field of penis jokes as I do of successfully calculating the acceleration of an object in space, and the mere mention of the Law of Thermodynamics causes me to spontaneously combust into a raging inferno of blathering idiocy and itchy hives and barfing.
Maria Sklodowska had no such difficulty in comprehending this incredibly complex field of study. The most famous female physicist in history was an insane supergenius who made this brain-immolating discipline her prison bitch, discovered the secrets behind technologies that lead to discoveries such as chemotherapy and nuclear warfare, and generally just went out at a time when most women were expected to be little more than childbearing snuggle factories and flipping blew the minds of the entire intellectual community like an unstoppable mushroom cloud of face-melting science.
Sklodowska was born in Warsaw in 1867, at a time when her beloved homeland of Poland was basically being neck-stomped into submission by the jackboots of the Russian Empire. Her family had tried to make a stand against the oppression of their people (and had subsequently lost all of their wealth and property due to their involvement in a rebel Polish nationalist society), but I guess you can't blame them for trying. Maria herself worked in the secret underground "free university" as a teenager, where she went around and read to Polish women who were working in factories in an effort to try and educate them to do something awesome with their lives.
Eventually Maria moved to Paris to study physics. It was there that she met a fellow scientist, a dude named Pierre Curie, and together they decided to get hitched and start a career in husband-wife sciencery. She changed her name to Marie Curie, and worked towards her Ph.D. in Physics by doing a bunch of research on freaking radioactive nuclear materials. They were both broke as hell, working as teachers full-time and spending their nights and weekends in a homemade laboratory they constructed out of an old shed in their spare time, but substandard conditions didn't even slow these people down. Sustaining her family solely on the 19th-century equivalent of Maruchan Ramen and microwaveable gruel, Marie couldn't afford graduate assistants, supplies, materials, or food, but she still somehow figured out how to separate gamma rays from radioactive materials while simultaneously discovering two new elements – Radium and Polonium – in the process. Not only did Curie lay the groundwork for the entire field of nuclear physics using nothing more than a bullshit setup she MacGyvered out of an old sock and a few pieces of PVC pipe she dumpster-dived out from behind the Home Depot, but she also invented the word "radioactivity", revolutionized the field of chemistry, and was so selfless that she didn't patent her ideas, leaving them in the public domain so that other scientists could advance the field without having to worry about stupid copyright bullcrap.
1903 was a pretty sweet year for Madame Curie – she was awarded her Ph.D. and also the Nobel Prize – which is probably a combination of awards that most people don't generally achieve in the same calendar year. I guess that's what you call a pretty solid thesis paper. She became the first woman to win the Nobel, and when she was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry a couple years later she became the first person of any gender to win two prizes in two different fields. To this day she remains the only human to win it for two different sciences. In case that's not enough, Curie's science-master genes were so powerful that her daughter Irene also went on the win the award in Chemistry as well, meaning that, in the history of award, 66% of all female laureates of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry were Curies. That's a pretty decent track record of awesomeness.
While this is an epically huge achievement for anyone to accomplish, it's also important to keep in mind the fact that Madame Curie was winning Nobel Prizes for working with radioactive materials back in 1900, a time when women couldn't even vote and most of the scientific community didn't know the difference between their dicks and a short-wave radio. For her to have been uncovering the secrets of nuclear medicine is mind-porkingly insane. She went up against a male dominated industry in a world that tried to convince women that they were little more than property, and told them all to blow it out their collective asses with a potato cannon, which is something I think everybody can respect.
She also looked the part of a crazy mad scientist, which is pretty sweet:
Well Pierre died in 1906 when a horse-drawn carriage ran over his face, and Marie took over his chair at the Sarbonne Academy in Paris, becoming its first female professor. She dedicated her life to furthering their research, building labs and institutes, and melting peoples' faces with gamma radiation whenever possible. She was pretty bummed about Pierre, but a few years after her husband's death she allayed some of that depression by cougaring it up with one of his former graduate assistants, which is pretty cool if you're down with getting it on with hot college students.
When World War One broke out in Europe, Marie left her post, donated her and her husband's gold Nobel Prize medals to be melted down to support the war effort, jumped in a mobile radiation therapy truck, and drove out to the battlefield to help wounded and dying men in the trenches. She used gamma rays to try and alleviate the pain of battle-wounded soldiers (using a process that was essentially the beginning of chemotherapy), and won the Legion of Honor from the French government for being a selfless, radiation-blasting hardass who didn't take shit from anybody.
Eventually, Curie figured out that working on nuclear materials without any sort of protective gear was hazardous to her health, but she didn't even give a crap. She warned other people not to screw with gamma rays without taking the appropriate precautions, but decided that she was going to take one for the team, and became the scientific equivalent of those insane old-school hockey players who refused to wear helmets or pads or get their teeth fixed. On any given day you could find her goggles-deep in enough radioactive material to make a Geiger counter sound like a jet engine, working out the secrets of atomic energy like some kind of crazy person with no regard for their own safety. She eventually died from radiation-related sickness at the age of 66 (not a bad lifespan considering the fact that she spent her entire career getting pelted with enough harmful rays to take the hair off a Yeti), and everything in her home had been so exposed to radiation that nowadays it all has to be stored in lead boxes. Seriously, you can't even handle her cookbooks without wearing protective anti-radiation gear that somewhat resembles the power armor used by the Brotherhood of Steel in Fallout. Legend has it that simply reading her recipes exposes you to so many ultra-concentrated gamma rays that you have a 10% chance of mutating into the Incredible Hulk of French-Polish Cuisine.
Marie Curie was the queen of radiation, and she dropped more science on peoples' asses then they knew what to do with. The Curie (Ci) also became the name of the standard unit of radiation, so I guess in the future when you're out wandering around a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland you can think to yourself, "Shit, there's like a thousand Curies out here – my brains are going to melt out of my ears any minute now!", thus making her name synonymous with head-scorching death. Her research, as I've said, also led to chemotherapy and atomic bombs, representing the ultimate duality of her legacy... and while this guy may not be super happy about the situation, I think that the rest of us can appreciate how sweet this is.
If you were into really cheesy puns, you might even say that Marie Curie was "totally rad", but that of course would be ridiculous.
The Curies looking like badasses on the 500 Franc bank note.
Curie, Eve. Madame Curie: A Biography. Da Capo Press, 1937.
Quinn, Susan. Marie Curie: A Life. Da Capo Press, 1996.