The Musée Curie is a small, free museum tucked into the Institut Curie research campus in Paris. It’s not at the top of most Paris tourists’ lists, but it’s an interesting way to spend an hour or so if you find yourself in the Latin Quarter.
Marie Curie has always felt inaccessible to me. She was the first scientist to win two Nobel prizes, and it’s hard for me to imagine her as anything other than an imperious genius, constantly hunched over her notebook or lab equipment, her thoughts faster than anyone else’s. Did she operate on the same plane of existence as the rest of us? She is supposed to be an inspiring figure, but I have never been able to see her as someone I could emulate. How could I hope to compare to someone so far above me?
The fact that Curie and her belongs are literally untouchable doesn’t help me feel connected to her. Her remains are so radioactive that she is interred in a lead-lined coffin. Some of her papers in the museum are replicas rather than the real thing because so many of her belongings are still too radioactive to be near museum visitors. Researchers who wear protective clothing can get them out of their lead-lined storage cases in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France if they sign a waiver indicating that they are aware of the risks.
But my trips to the Musée Curie have helped me see Marie Curie as a real person.
The Musée Curie is housed in the laboratory where Curie herself worked from 1914-1934. It has exhibits on the radium craze of the 1920s and 1930s, the Curie family and their work, and later work done by the Radium Institute, now the Curie Institute. A visitor can peek into Curie’s old office and imagine Madame Curie herself presiding over it. Outside the building a life-size photograph of Curie leans on a railing, looking into her garden and contemplating the secrets of radioactivity. The picture appears to have been taken in precisely the same place as it is now displayed, a brief glimpse of the past standing in the present. It’s easy to imagine that Curie spent a lot of time leaning on that railing, lost in thought.
But a letter I found in one of the display cases humanized her to me even more than the picture of her pensive afternoons staring out at the garden.
“We have to resolve a small difficulty relative to the furnishing of alternating current (lighting and force) for the experiments” it begins. When I read it, I started chuckling. Marie Curie was just like us! She had administrative and logistical hassles to deal with before she could get her work done!
Unfortunately I don’t know to whom the letter was addressed or the exact nature of what she was trying to work out. From what I can tell, she was trying to get alternating current set up correctly in the rooms where she was doing experiments, but I don’t know for sure what logistical barriers she was trying to get past. Regardless, this letter lets me imagine Marie Curie, towering genius, empress of her laboratory, doing the 1924 equivalent of emailing tech support to get the lab computers onto the university network.
You can read the full letter and my translation below.
Nous avons à résoudre une petite difficulté relative à la fourniture du courant alternatif (éclairage et force) au service des manipulations. J’avais espéré que chacun de nous pourrait avoir ses propres lignes commandées par un transformateur placé dans sa propre cabine, avec connexions facultatives. Ainsi on aurait évité toute comptabilité et toute difficulté de surveillance. Mais il parait que nous ne pouvons être autorisés à poser ce double système de lignes et que par suite nous ne pourrons pas avoir faire dépendre les lignes du service de manipulations comme toutes les autres lignes de notre annexe, d’un transformateur de haute tension placé dans notre cabine. Cela nécessiterait, d’une part, un accord sur votre participation aux frais de fourniture de courant alternatif, d’autre part un accord de principe sur le service et les responsabilités. Il est, en effet, absolument nécessaire que nous dehors des heures de service et pendant les jours de vacances. Ceci ne présenterait pas de difficulté si, comme je le suppose, vous n’utillesez le local que pour vos manipulation a l’époque où vous en disposerez, il y aurait de ce coté une difficulté que vous pourriez résoudre le mieux, je crois, en vous servant de lignes volantes venant de votre laboratoire.
Il importe que nous soyons d’accord sur cette question avant de prendre une décision définitive relativement à l’alimentation en courant alternatif et je vous serais très obligée de me dire votre opinion.
Avec mes meilleures amitiés.
We have to solve a small difficulty relative to the supply of the alternating current (lighting and force) for the experiments. I had hoped that each of us could have their own lines controlled by a transformer placed in their own cubicle, with optional connections. This would have prevented any accounting and any monitoring difficulties. But it seems that we cannot be allowed to lay down this double system of lines, and that consequently we cannot have the experiment service lines, like all the other lines of our annex, on a high voltage transformer placed in our cubicle. This would require, on the one hand, an agreement on your participation in the cost of supplying AC power, and on the other hand an agreement in principle on electrical service and responsibilities. It is, indeed, absolutely necessary for us to use it outside of business hours and during the holidays. This would not be difficult if, as I suppose, you use the premises only for your experiments at the time you have at your disposal, there would be a difficulty that you could solve best, I think, Using flying lines from your laboratory.
It is important that we agree on this issue before making a final decision on AC power, and I would be very grateful if you could give me your opinion.
All the best.