July 4: Guiding Examples

As we celebrate Independence Day, we also commemorate the lives of Thomas Jefferson and Marie Curie, who died on July 4.

Jefferson, who died in 1826, collected fossils, liked gadgets, and used a scientific technique for farming, which included a seven-year plan for crop rotation. In other times, he might have become a scientist: “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the times in which I have lived have forced me to take a part in resisting them, and to commit myself on the boisterous ocean of political passions.”

Marie Curie, who died in 1934, was awarded two Nobel Prizes for her work in radioactivity and the discoveries of radium and polonium. Her first prize, in Physics in 1903 and shared with her husband and Antoine Henri Becquerel, was the first Nobel awarded to a woman. The second was in Chemistry in 1911; she was the first person to be awarded prizes in different fields (Linus Pauling is the only other). As a woman, Marie Curie faced numerous professional obstacles and struggled to balance her career with motherhood (one daughter went on to share a Nobel Prize of her own). In an especially pragmatic move for a pure scientist, Marie Curie came up with the idea for a radiology car to provide mobile X-ray units to hospitals and then closer to the front during World War I, and she orchestrated a school to train women to take and interpret the X-ray images (her daughter became one of its teachers).

Last night, Anna finished reading Marie Curie: A Life. It’s a fascinating biography that draws heavily from Marie Curie’s journals, letters, and even poems, so you get to know the scientist in her own words. “A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician: he is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales.” Her remark about science captures part of our impetus for the Lofty Ambitions blog. That Marie and her husband, Pierre, negotiated ways to collaborate, as well as to distinguish their individual work, serves as a guiding example for us.

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