Sunday, September 24, 2006

Marie Curie's first Nobel

Some more excerpts from Barbara Goldsmith's Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie. We learn, on page 107, that the first physics Nobel went to Röntgen in 1901 for his discovery of X-rays, and the second to Hendrik Antoon Lorentz and Pieter Zeeman for their research into "the influence of magnetism upon radiation phenomenon." We also learn that for both those Nobels, Charles Bouchard, "a doctor with lifetime nominating rights", nominated Marie Curie, Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel. I'm excerpting a key section of the narrative:

... The following year, in a stunning example of what it was to be a woman in science, a vicious sexism ripped away all pretense that Marie Curie might be accepted as an equal.

Four influential scientists collaborated on an official letter nominating Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel for the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics. Madame Curie was not mentioned. The letter contained a distorted account of the discovery of polonium and radium. It asserted that these two men, competing against foreign rivals, had "worked together and separately to procure, with great difficulty, some decigrams of this precious material." This in spite of the fact that Marie Curie's amazing discoveries were known throughout the scientific community and that three of the four men who signed the letter had been involved in her work and knew full well to whom the credit belonged. The most shocking of the four was Gabriel Lippmann, whom Marie had deemed a close friend and advisor. Lippman, however, had regarded Marie as an impoverished young student, not as a potential competitor.

There was speculation that Becquerel had influenced the letter in order to cast more credit on himself. One member of the Nobel science committee, Magnus Gösta Mittag-Leffler, a famous mathematician and chief editor of Acta Mathematica, believed that women in science were unappreciated and deplored Madame Curie's omission from the nominating letter. To test the waters, he wrote privately to Pierre apprising him of the situation. Pierre responded that if this nomination was serious, he could not accept the prize unless the Nobel committee included Madame Curie. Armed with Pierre's reply, Mittag-Leffler exerted his considerable influence to urge that Marie Curie's name be added to the letter of nomination. Certain adversarial committee members claimed this was impossible since the nomination letter had already been filed. It was then that Charles Bouchard reminded the committee that this was not strictly true since he had included Marie in his nomination for the Nobel Prize both in 1901 and 1902. By now the politics of the committee had grown so fraught that at last they added Madame Curie's name to the award. By this technical fluke, she was credited with "opening up a new area of physics research" and for her part in the most magnificent methodical and persistent investigations." ...

One half of the 1903 physics Nobel went to Becquerel and the other half was shared by Marie and Pierre Curie. The Curies, however, could not make the trip to Sweden for the award ceremony due to Marie's poor health. They did make the trip eventually (in April of 1905) to accept the award, and make the Award Presentation. Here too, there was a twist: "Pierre alone was asked to speak. He was seated on the dais, she was in the audience." Barbara Goldsmith adds:

This insult turned out to Marie's advantage since her husband, from the podium, could then give her full credit for her discoveries. In his speech "Radioactive Substances, Especially Radium", he mentioned Madame Curie's accomplishments again and again. ... Pierre pointed out that Marie alone had discovered radioactivity of these elements ...