20 April 2008

Marie and Pierre Curie

Today, April 20, is the anniversary of the day, in 1902, when the Curies successfully isolated radium salts from pitchblend. Contemporary subatomic physics may as appropriately be dated from that accomplishment as from any other.

Pitchblend,which as the name suggests is a black pitchy substance, had already been an item of scientific inquiry for some time before the Curies started work on it.

The German chemist Martin Klaproth isolated uranium from pitchblend in 1789. Why (in an era before the development of the whole idea of radioactivity) was uranium interesting? Because it was an element, and identifying the elements was the crucial task of the "Lavoisierian school" at the time -- it was that task that made what they were doing real chemistry rather than old disreputable alchemy.

The search for elements intensified after the 1860s, when the Russian chemist Mendeleev published the first version of the "periodic table." The table had holes in it, and it stood to reason that there should be undiscovered elements out there, which would enable its completion.

That is the task the Curies set themselves in the 1890s. Isolate elements. They went about it through the re-investigation of pitchblend, to see what Klaproth might have missed. The first element they discovered in this way, in 1898, is now known as Polonium, in honor of Marie nee Sklodowska's native country.

So on April 20, 1902, radium salts came out of the same blend. And the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1903 (as well as the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911) in turn came out of that. The Physics award for the investigation of the new element's radioactive properties, the chemistry award (which was given to Marie alone, since these awards are never given posthumously) for the isolation of the element as such.

Pierre died in 1906, after being hit by a horse-drawn carriage while walking the streets of Paris in a snowstorm.

Marie labored on after his death, and became if you will the matriarch for the emerging field of science, until her death (almost certainly of radiation poisoning) in the 1930s.

She remains the only Nobel Prize recipient even to be honored in two distinct fields.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.