The scientist Maria Sklodowska Curie was born in 1867. There have been numerous tributes to her on this 150th anniversary of her birth. But what lessons should be learned from this exceptional woman as part of a reflection on the relationship between science and society?
- Scientists care nothing for borders
All it takes to be convinced of this fact is to look at the biography of Marie Sklodowska-Curie, born in Poland and buried in the Pantheon, resting place of French heroes. Through her very existence, the iconic 20th century scientist, and figurehead of those whom the historian Jean-Pierre Poirier dubbed the “Conquerors of the Atom” embodies this belief. She came to study in France because in those days as a woman she could not study in Poland (at that time under Russian imperial control). But, several years later, she could very well have returned to Poland (which was at last free) and which was crying out for her presence, at a time when certain sections of the French press were fiercely against her, going so far as to call her a foreign upstart. One of the most vivid examples to illustrate the “scientific cosmopolitanism” is undoubtedly the Solvay Congress in 1911. Organised by the eponymous Belgian chemist at the hotel Métropole in Brussels, this symposium of physicists and chemists included Marie Curie, surrounded by scientists from all over the world: Walther Nernst, Marcel Brillouin, Ernest Solvay, Hendrik Lorentz, Emil Warburg, Jean Baptiste Perrin, Wilhelm Wien, Henri Poincaré, Robert Goldschmidt, Max Planck, Heinrich Rubens, Arnold Sommerfeld, Frederick Lindemann, Maurice de Broglie, Martin Knudsen, Friedrich Hasenöhrl, Georges Hostelet, Édouard Herzen, James Jeans, Ernest Rutherford, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, Albert Einstein, and Paul Langevin…. Long before politicians, scientists had already found ways to meet around the same table and exchange ideas.
- The precautionary principle would have saved her life…. Yes, but…
Since its first articulation in the nineteen seventies, the precautionary principle has taken such a pre-eminent place in scientific debate that it is now a kind of Pavlovian reflex – even an old chestnut – in the science and society debate. It is clear that if this principle had been applied in Marie Curie’s era, she would probably have lived much longer. But the fundamental question that begs is “With the means available at the time, could she, while respecting the precautionary principle, have discovered the properties of polonium and radium and, above all, would it have been possible to develop all the applications made possible by these discoveries?” It should be noted that there were no “whistle blowers” at the time and that science was viewed mainly in the light of the benefits it brought to society. Also, as JP Poirier observed, “Awareness of the severity of the risks run by those handling radioactive substances was slow to develop. The risks were not unknown; Pierre and Marie Curie had reported them very early on. But the full severity had not been taken into account, and no one knew the threshold of dangerous levels of exposure to radiation. The extraordinary resistance of Marie Curie and her daughter Irene, given the risks they were taking, only lulled them into a false sense of security”.
- Public opinion is as excited about the “personal life” of scientists as in their discoveries.
Very often these days we hear researchers complain about the coverage of scientific information and the fact that the media are only looking for the sensational story, and harbour disdain for “business as usual” stories. It appears this is nothing new. One day on vacation at Pouldu, Marie Curie replied to a journalist wanting an interview: “In Science we should be interested in things not in people.” This quote has something prescient about it when you know that on several occasions journalists attacked her savagely. The first time was when her application for the Academy of Science was rejected. Leon Bailby wrote in the nationalist paper l’Intransigeant that “This woman who has previously received popular acclaim, we judge to be going rather too far in her desire for recompense and honours”. He applauded the lesson of patience and modesty that the Institute had just taught her. The second time was after her affair with the scientist Langevin; Léon Daudt wrote in the right wing Action Française “This foreign woman is destroying a French family. She is the result of the moral corruption of these Sorbonne students contaminated by the ideas of Ibsen and Nietzsche. Marie Curie and her ilk are also Dreyfusards. So we should class them in with the Jews” She was to reclaim her reputation which had been sullied by these unpleasant words when she received her second Nobel Prize: “I consider that there is no connection between my scientific work and the elements of my private life that are used against me in lowbrow publications, and which have been, moreover, completely distorted. I cannot accept the idea that the appreciation of the value of scientific work can be influenced by defamation and slander about one’s private life”
- There is no contradiction between science and political commitment
What is striking about the life of Marie Curie is as much her appetite for discovery with those two Nobel Prizes, as her stubborn desire to engage with political movements. When the Great War had just been declared, she wrote in Le Temps newspaper “It is natural that the Poles, who have always been friends of France and who have often served her, are turning to this great Republican and democratic country with the hope of support from the Allied powers to encourage them to ensure the freedom and independence of Poland” Next, her extraordinarily successful idea of designing, developing and even driving the “Little Curies”, vehicles equipped with radiology units permitted the wounded to be treated on the frontlines. It was a substantial success, carrying out more than 1.1 million radiological examinations from 1917 to 1918.
- Blurring the border between original research and applied science
As we have just seen the system set up by Marie Curie during the Great War shows how spurious the frontier between original research and applied science is. This is what Claude Huriet demonstrates in a paper, which we are delighted to be publishing, entitled “The Curie model, Marie Sklodowska Curie’s other invention”