A spirit of adventure, intellectual curiosity, and a passion for science drove Marie Curie to explore, discover, and excel despite the myriad obstacles placed in her path.
Curie entered the sciences at a time when there was an absolute explosion of new discoveries, and a spirit of great cooperation and intellectual sharing throughout Europe at the end of the Romantic Period, which saw the development and expansion of academies and universities, the birth of many great museums, and the establishment of learned societies across disciplines. It was a terrific time to be a scientist. It was not such a great time to be a woman in the sciences.
Despite coming from an academic family, in her home country of Poland she was banned from higher education because of her gender. Undeterred, and with the support of her family she studied at the incredible Flying University in Warsaw, a clandestine educational institution that met in secret and educated thousands of students otherwise denied access to higher education. But in this atmosphere of limitations, it is not surprising that she left, and entered the University of Paris to complete her studies.
In 1903, Curie went on to become the first woman to win a Nobel Prize with her husband, for their research into radioactivity. Later she would go on to win a second Nobel Prize, and become the first female professor at the University of Paris. At the same time, she was denied the opportunity to speak about her own research when invited to the Royal Institute in London (her husband spoke for both of them), and was refused a place in the French Academy of Sciences. They only admitted their first female member in 1962.
But throughout Curie’s career she maintained an attitude of enthusiasm towards her craft and her research. It is this connection between curiosity, wonder, and passion for the practical work of a life of the mind that drives so many in both the arts and sciences to produce incredible work in the same environment that breaks less passionate souls.
Author Ian Leslie talks in his recent book Curious about the idea of “Diversive Curiosity” and “need for cognition” – personality traits that are naturally intellectually novelty seeking, and of research into the relationship between sensations of pleasure and problem solving and discovery of knowledge. As it turns out, all of these things are related to happiness in profound ways. In this way, for those who are driven by this desire to know, the process of research and the experience of instinctive curiosity also creates joy. Or, in the words of Marie Curie:
“I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale. We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific progress can be reduced to mechanisms, machines, gearings, even though such machinery also has its beauty.
Neither do I believe that the spirit of adventure runs any risk of disappearing in our world. If I see anything vital around me, it is precisely that spirit of adventure, which seems indestructible and is akin to curiosity.”
-Marie Curie, from Madame Curie : A Biography (1937) by Eve Curie Labouisse