September 23, 2013

Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie

The title of this biography of Marie Curie rang true for me in only one of its words. The author fully convinced me that Curie was an obsessive scientist. Although I believe she was also a genius, I didn't see a good case made for that in this book. She seemed more like a slogger to me, working night and day and never, ever quitting. That single-mindedness can be a characteristic of genius, but in Curie's case, it resulted in a life I would call meagre. If that word can be applied to someone who won two Nobel Prizes.

The subtitle doesn't reflect the book at all. The author doesn't manage to get into the Inner World of Marie Curie, unless by that she just means Curie's milieu. I was looking for what made her tick, how she thought, and I couldn't figure it out, except that she thought about science, and in particular radioactivity.

The biography does show how Curie was worthy of the two Nobel Prizes she won (Physics in 1903, with her husband Pierre, and Chemistry in 1911) and how her work was a springboard for other scientific discoveries.

Curie was born and raised in Poland, but worked most of her life in Paris. She was one of only 23 women among 2000 students at the School of Science, Sorbonne, and she lived in dire poverty in unheated rooms. The fascinating aspect of the book is the description of her lab work - the radioactive substances she isolates are the elephant in the closet. We know it's there and we know it's killing her, but she and her partner apparently don't. They'd done the tests on lab rats and knew that they died from radioactivity, yet the Curies so loved their work and were so intrigued with radioactivity that they couldn't imagine it harming them. They kept a glowing vial by their bedside because they liked the look of it. They both died too young and in terrible pain.

I wish I could say the story was inspiring but I didn't find it so. Either the author didn't show Marie Curie's human, womanly side, or she just didn't have one. The latter seems possible, from what is revealed of this serious, driven woman who cared not at all about clothes, friends, or the comforts of life, and who left her two children in the care of servants, friends and relatives for most of their lives. Curie was not a generous scientist - she guarded her work and didn't care to share ideas, and this in the end was how the story of Curie's life affected me. It felt like an ungenerous life, a claustrophobic existence with astounding results for science but with little joy.