It’s dumbfounding, flabbergasting, and flummox ing that society used to be as stupid as it was: like when, a scant century ago, Marie Curie, one of the most brilliant and kind and era-defining people of the past millennium was besmirched and belittled for the fact that she was a she, that there was a woman making the most significant scientific discoveries rather than some old white dude. As such, her life is an inspiration in the truest sense–that is, 79 years after her death, she’s still breathing life into us.
We can hold Curie up as a model in many ways: for her integrating of work and personal life, in the way she collaborated with her husband and studied and efforted at raising her daughters; in her perseverance, for the way she broke through the glass ceiling of science, giving a precedent of scientifically minded women that would come after her (like my mom, who is also a great scientist and human, love you!); for her dedication to her field, it too easy to declare her death by radium poisoning as martyrdom. For these reasons and more, it’s well worth studying not just what she did, but how she did it.
Which is why it’s awesome that our fellow productive nerds at Lifehacker just reflected on the way Curie worked. Let us refract those reflections here.
Haters, we know, come in many forms: if you’re Frank Ocean they might be unnerved by your sexuality, if you’re Warren Buffett they might change who you are. But badasses know how to deal with soul-sucking haters.
Curie went up against the most difficult of hateful establishments: the (then?) patriarchal world of science. When she came to the States in May of 1921, President William Harding made the incredibly weird compliment that “We lay at your feet the testimony of that love which all the generations of men have been wont to bestow upon the noble woman, the unselfish wife, the devoted mother,” and as Smithsonian points out, you’d never expect Harding to praise a male scientist for his qualities as a husband and father (though maybe he should).
Back in Curie’s day, proper women were thought “too sentimental” to do the objective work of science. Jounalists, those buffoons, would come to her asking after gossip, to which Madame Curie would reply “Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas,” or “In science, we must be interested in things, not in persons.”
This is a fine way to handle would-be drama: by making the work about the work, not the people at work.
Born in Warsaw, Poland, in November 1867, Curie was devoted to science from the start. While her science teacher father encouraged her curiosity–so much so that Curie attended a “floating” school for the gifted that was undetectable to the Russians–he couldn’t afford to send her off to college. So, at the age of 24, Curie took a great leap of faith in the form of moving to Paris and enrolling at the Sorbonne.
As Smithsonian writer Julie Des Jardins writes, the young Curie devoted herself to her craft:
She immersed herself in French and math and made ends meet cleaning glassware in university labs. She rationed her intake of food until, on more than one occasion, she collapsed of weakness. Science thrilled her, and she earned a degree in physics in 1893 and another in mathematics the following year.
In this way, Curie is another case study in the way persistence begets success.
As one organizational psychologist told us, we self-medicate with the people we’re in close relationships with. She found such a partner in Pierre Curie, who proposed to her by saying “It would … be a beautiful thing … to pass through life together hypnotized in our dreams: your dream for your country; our dream for humanity; our dream for science.”
Productive people keep better notes, we’ve learned, since notetaking allows us to continually improve our understanding of the world, for just as “successful students continue to improve their mastery of the concepts from previous chapters and courses as they move toward the more advanced material on the horizon; successful people regularly focus on the core purpose of their profession or life.”
Or, as a Chinese proverb says, “The faintest ink is better than the best memory.”
Curie took thorough notes: as Lifehacker observes, she kept her own issues in a personal journal, she tracked her children’s development in another journal, and after her husband passed in 1906, she wrote in a mourning journal. All these journals, by the way, are still radioactive.
Curie didn’t just challenge the patriarchal paradigm of her day by being one of the most accomplished thinkers to ever live, but also set off a scientific revolution.
After long studies of uranium, she inferred that something sub-atomic was happening with the element. As Des Jardins, the Smithsonian writer, puts it:
Finally, she posited a daring hypothesis: The rays emitted might be a basic property of uranium atoms, which we now know to be subatomic particles released as the atoms decay. Her theory had radical implications. Trish Baisden, a senior chemist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, describes it as a shocking proposal: “It was truly amazing and a bold statement at the time because the atom was thought to be the most elementary particle, one that could not be divided. It further meant that atoms are not necessarily stable.” Curie’s hypothesis would revise the scientific understanding of matter at its most elemental level.
This would soon lead to her discovery of polonium, then, soon after, radium–and with that, something she called “radio activity.” And neither science, nor gender dynamics, would ever be the same.