Friday, February 02, 2007

Friday Library: Marie Curie

I know she's over-done, but I have this great old book about People, Mostly Men, Oh And Also Marie Curie!, In Science.

A propos of FSP's 'endless array of bearded men', the photo inside the front cover:

Men in Science
Top: Ladenburg, Jorgensen, Hjelt, Landolt, Winkler, Thorpe; Bottom: van't Hoff, Beilstein, Ramsay, Menedleeff, von Baeyer, Cossa.

It starts out pretty good: Here's a brilliant woman did great work and isn't being recognized! And then... worsens. She's an exception, you see, a genius, and that makes her equal to men. And 'mental fog which has incapacitated many a man' is fine, but weren't we talking about women's repression here?

This wouldn't be quite so distressing if these attitudes were, y'know, gone. Women have to work twice as hard to get recognition? Check. Given lesser positions for equal work? Excluded from Old Boys' Club? Check. It's tradition? Check. 'Don't worry, science doesn't make her completely unwomanly, she still cooks and cleans and dresses pretty'? CHECK.

This book is 80 years old. As long as science departments remain 80% male, as long as grant moneys go to men out of proportion to numbers and ability, as long as we keep discussing Nancy Pelosi's clothing, these attitudes won't change. We've been working on it; let's keep working.


Mme Curie

Eminent Chemists of Our Time
Benjamin Harrow
Van Nostrand; 1927 (2nd ed.)

The foremost scientist of France, and the greatest woman scientist in the history of mankind, [Curie] counts politically less than many a man fit for the lunatic asylum. And as if to encourage that conception of women to which so many men cling tenaciously, the French Academy, numbering among its members the élite of French intellect, decide [sic] that woman, be she ever so much a genius, cannot be admitted into their sanctum. If further proof were needed that intellect often runs counter to freedom, and that scientists who work so strenuously for an enlargement of their scientific horizon often belong to the most reactionary group in politics, the case of Madame Curie affords an excellent example.

Within the space of ten short years this woman has created a new science, radioactivity, and this has opened up more fertile chemical soil than any other discovery in the history of science... In speed of progress, radioactivity is to the science which has gone before what the aeroplane is to the tortoise.

This momentous discovery belongs to Madame Curie. To be sure, the way was paved for her by many; to be sure, her husband was a good helpmate; but in spite of analogous work in various parts of the world by the world's most gifted scientists, this woman triumphed where all others failed, and to her belongs the reward... to-day she stands crowned as the greatest woman and among the very greatest scientists of all times.

The inherent qualities which go to the making of genius certainly never have been the exclusive possession of half mankind, but whereas the male geniuses have, at times, been allowed to blossom, the females belonging to this species, have until recently, been suppressed with a Cossack's ferocity and a Cossack's justice. The past four years [WW I] of critical history from which mankind has just emerged will, perhaps, help to remove the mental fog which has incapacitated many a man [or woman?] from using his brains to the advantage of himself and of the world.
In the history of doctor's dissertations, Madame Curie's easily takes first place for importance of contribution, with Arrhenius's as a close second... With a bound Mme. Curie leaped from complete obscurity to the center of the world's stage...

Within the next few months the Nobel Prize, the highest mark of distinction that can come to any scientist, was divided between the Curies and Becquerel.

In [1901] Madame Curie was appointed Chef de Travaux, or chief of the laboratory, in the department at the Sorbonne that was especially created for her husband. [After his death, she was made head of this department.]
In 1911 Madame Curie was again the recipient of the Nobel Prize... So far Madame Curie is the only individual who has received the award more than once; this in itself speaks volumes as to her standing in the eyes of her fellow-scientists... In this same year the French Institute dishonored itself by refusing to elect Madame Curie to membership... This gave rise to a lively discussion on the eligibility of women for membership when Mme. Curie's name was brought before the one hundred and fifty Academicians at the quarterly meeting of the five academies... this august body went on record to the effect that... there was 'an immutable tradition against the election of women, which it seemed eminently wise to respect.' Science in its search for truth has thrown tradition overboard on innumerable occasions.
Mme. Curie may be the great scientist, but she has many of the traits of femininity and motherhood which most men of all ages have admired. Aside from her work, her attention is devoted almost exclusively to the welfare of her two daughters... When the two children were younger Mme. Curie made all their dresses, and washed and ironed the more delicate pieces of lingerie.