Marie Curie Was A Difficult Woman

This is a factual account of Marie Curie’s life, nothing more, nothing less.  That’s all it means.  Anybody who tells you any different is lying and trying to start something.


Marie Curie Was A Difficult Woman

People love Marie Curie.  People lose their ever-lovin’ minds over how much they love Marie Curie.  People even believe that she is entitled to attend social events with her colleagues without being sexually harassed and assaulted.  Damn, I wish people believed that about me.  Turns out you only have to get two Nobel Prizes to claim that kind of privilege, so at least there’s a clear target.  Yes, Marie Curie is the Joan of Arc of Science.  And just like with good ol’ Joan, I believe that the people who love her are split into two camps: those who wish she was alive now and those who are kind of glad she’s dead so that they don’t have to deal with her.  This is muddled not only by the likelihood of overlap between the two groups, but also by assumptions that people are squarely in one group when they are actually in the other.  And also, just like with Joan, there’s that pesky group of people who actually killed her, but they’re too dead for us to care about.

I know a lot about Marie Curie.  The trouble is that I don’t know if any of it is true.  I’m not a Historian, I’m just the sorry old SOB who’s been walking in her muddy bloody tracks for twenty-five years.  I also have a pretty vivid imagination because I didn’t go to graduate school in the Humanities which is specifically designed to beat that out of you.  Unlike me, Historians spend years in Special Collections libraries and are under a lot of pressure to excavate facts that prove the stories people tell are not accurate and that things actually happened another way entirely.  Quite frankly, I’m amazed that they’ve stayed in business this long with a shtick like that, but you should check the comments below for relevant information.  Believe the ones that confirm what I say and take the others with a big grain of salt.  I’ve never trusted people who don’t believe I’m right about everything, and you shouldn’t either.

I remember my mother telling me stories about the drafty garret that Marie lived in when she first attended the University of Paris.  She told about bitterly cold nights when, after an impoverished Marie had covered herself in every stitch of cloth and newspaper that she owned or had scavenged, she took a chair and laid it upon herself, hoping somehow that the weight of it would make her feel warmer.  As I got older this story evolved from a quit-cher-bitchin fable into a study-or-else one and so I’ve progressed through life with a bony shivering Marie following me about like a hungry stray.  Some of the story probably goes back to my mother having grown up painfully poor in Minnesota and the frostbite scars on her nose.  Incidentally, the fact that stories of Marie Curie were used to guilt us into wearing our scarves probably explains a lot about my family.  I’ll tell you about our slide-ruler swordfights sometime.

Marie had a helluva two-body problem just like a lot of us do now and her university didn’t have any clear policy on it just like ours still don’t.  In fact, she wasn’t even employed by the university: her husband was.  She did get his job after he died, but that was after she had been awarded two Nobel Prizes so they kind of had to.  This makes my senior colleague right when he told me that it’s easier to get tenure nowadays.  His timing was unfortunate, it being the day after I got tenure, but I really can’t disagree based on data.  Unlike me, Marie didn’t have her own lab and so she did all her experiments in a hallway.  I remember something about the roof leaking on her stuff.  Because it wasn’t secure, she walked around with the most valuable thing she had – radium – in her pocket to keep it safe.  When she died and they cut her open, the tumors spilled out of her abdomen like a birthday piñata.  Maybe the radium that had pressed against her for years had something to do with that, but it’s kind of late to be pointing fingers.  After all, once she was famous every other damn place in the world the university had a big ceremony to honor her and there was likely free food.  And it was probably French food, too.  During her thank-you speech she got up and said, “I could have accomplished twice as much in half of the time if I’d had the proper facilities.”  That’s French for “F*ck You, Losers!”

Marie wrote lots and lots of letters to her daughters because they didn’t have Skype back then.  I’ve seen reproductions of this correspondence.  The letters are filled with chit-chat interspersed with the derivation of various theorems from first principles.  I don’t know if Marie was trying to lecture them into her world or desperately trying to fit herself into theirs, but I do know that being someone’s mother means that you do both constantly.  My own mother and I are two women who can’t stand being in the same room together but would kill without compunction or remorse anything that threatened the other.  It doesn’t make any more sense to me than the French chit-chat and the equations (me being an experimentalist and all) within Marie’s letters to her daughters, but I accept the validity of all three.  Whenever I think of Marie I automatically wonder what she would think of me.  I wonder if she would be proud of me or even like me at all.  Then I look at myself in the mirror and conclude definitely not.  I vow to get up an hour earlier the next morning, work harder, and finally make something that wouldn’t disgust her.  Thank God I have Marie to wonder about because I am too terrified to wonder about my own mother.  It feels safer to cry over poor old Marie and her womb full of tumors than to visualize myself as a parasitic blob within someone else’s.  A greedy growth to be cut out bleeding and raw and laid naked to a world bent on testing its viability over and over again.

Kindred as circumstances have rendered us, what woman actually knows the recesses of another woman’s heart?  We’ll never really know the important things about Marie: what she snickered about secretly to herself, what she silently yearned for and if she ever painted her nails.  Really I don’t know if any of what I know about Marie is true.  I suspect that some of it is.  Actually, I am convinced that all of it is.  I mean, it has to be.  Why would I make up a bunch of stuff to form a precise narrative projecting all of the resentment and ambivalence that I feel towards academia and my family of origin upon a female scientist that everyone loves, including me?  My conscious mind doesn’t like the idea and so I’m digging in on this one.  If you’re really curious about Marie you should read one or more of her many scholarly biographies, if only because the authors of those took longer than three hours during the middle of one night to write them.  Nonetheless, I will be shocked to hear anyone claim that Marie Curie was not a Difficult Woman.  And you should never envy Difficult Women.  They have Difficult lives and are Difficult to be around.  They might have a lot of friends online, for example, but they tend to utterly exhaust the real people that they know.  This inevitably becomes a Difficult thing that leads to many more Difficulties.  Yes indeed, Difficult Women generally say too much, want too much, and die too young.  They do not live forever, but once in a while, they change Science or Politics so thoroughly that their memory does.  En masse we neuter their ghosts and worship what’s left.  But my mother and I will always like the Difficult version better.



I am a dog, and I don’t know what’s going on

In 2008 several animals in poor condition were discovered when a farm in western Pennsylvania went into foreclosure.  My dog was one of those animals.  A charity called Chesapeake Bay Retriever Relief and Rescue nursed her back to health and then gave her to me in 2009.  I wrote this about her.


I am a dog, and I don’t know what’s going on.


I don’t know why I am so cold. The sun is finally shining but I am still shivering. It seems harder to move today.

I don’t know why I hurt so badly. Everything aches, and no matter how much I lick, it doesn’t seem to help. I don’t know what to do about the hurt.

I don’t know why there’s nothing to eat. My mind is racing trying to locate the smell of something to eat. I don’t know why I can’t find anything.

I don’t know why I can’t find the people I need. Somehow I know people are the answer. I need to be where they are, but where are they and who are they? I am cold, I am hurting and I am hungry. But it is the searching that exhausts me. I will keep searching as long as my ragged body will let me.

A woman looks at me. I go near. I will go with her if she lets me. Maybe she is the answer. I don’t know what’s going on.

Now I am with people. I don’t know them, but they don’t sound angry like the others. I will show them that I am soft, like them. I will go with them.

Now I am in a strange place and I don’t know what’s going on. They are hurting me but their voices are slow and soft and they hold me. There are other hurting dogs here and I smell blood and pee. But no one is angry. I will let them hurt me.

Now I am inside with people and other dogs. I don’t know any of them. From their smells I can see that these dogs eat good things. They are soft and they do not shiver or hurt. I will be with them. We are all waiting for something, but I don’t know what it is.

I am a dog, and I don’t know what’s going on. But I know who I am.

I am the descendent of the first wolf whose curiosity was stronger than her fear. I puzzled over those funny animals who sat near fire, slept, rose the next day and moved on. I dared to follow at a distance and learn their patterns, until the bizarre noises and smells became familiar.

I am the one who dared to creep forward and accept a bone from your hand. I saw you show your teeth then, but you made your affectionate noise, the one you make toward your own pack when you are happy. In time I learned to imitate you.

I realized that your babies, though furless and helpless, were not prey. Because they are sacred to you they became precious to me.

I learned to help. I stayed back with the old ones and the babies and raised my voice when anything came near. I helped secure our meat, then stepped back and trusted that you would hand me a bone later, as you did that first night by the fire.

I let you scoop up my darling puppy and carry her to your friend, who showed his teeth and walked her away. I trusted your world in its ability to keep her whole and sound, to tend her wounds and let her near the fire.

I am a dog, and I know who I am. I am the wolf who dared to cast my lot with yours. And because of this I know what to do. I sniff your hand and kiss it, and look up.

Epilogue: Our “Coco” is now the #2 amateur long-jump retriever in the state of Hawaii (title in 2010).  If you give to an animal charity this holiday season, please consider CBRR&R.

Howta maked cheezy noms

Like most laboratory chemists I can cook like a motherf*cker when I want to, which is about as often as a blue goddam moon.  You see the trouble is, it’s not like in the lab where I sometimes get something I can publish at the end.  Well, the below is apparently an exception, lucky for you.  Here’s my LOL-recipe for making your own cheese.


Ferst-thing ur going store to buyz 1 gallun hole milk. gotta be hole. then you boil it up in a big big kettel slow jus stan their stirrin an stirrin takes long

while yer attit makes sumone else beet toogethers a quarter buttrmilk wif 2 eggz then when yer boilin stir in buttrmilk-n-eggz SLOW I SAID SLOW dont ruin it now by bein too inpatient

now ull see the miricle kurds come up the rest of likwid is all klear thats Ceiling Cat doin that behold it for awile like evan an our or too but turn off heet first take pikshurs an stuff make ur FB status “I CAN HAZ CHEEZY NOMS” watch utubes

stir in 1 teesppon sugar and 2 teesppons salt the clear iz called “WAY” did u buy cheezcloffs? U hafta. Dont try n use nuffin else. ull jes maka messup. put cheezcloffs alla round a strainer, dubble layer pore kurds n way thru sum interwebz sites sez SAVE THE WAY FEED IT TO YOUR DOG PUT IT ON YOUR PLANTS DRINK IT ITS FULL OF VITAMINS

dont jes dont

let kurds drain 1 hour poke a lotta little wholes in bottum of a pie tin or so put cheezcloffs alla round in it, dubble layer spoon in kurds cover with cheezcloffs

now heers the trickzy put somefin WEIGHS A LOT on it and put whole thing in fridge it will press & drain 1 day

IS DONE! turn out of pie tin onto plate will be verry wite BUY A LOTTA BRED N KRAXERS why? kidz wont nom spowse will nom sum company will impress but notsomuch nom

u must nom wont keep like a reel cheez you only got about tree dayz


I made this cheese. Cheese!


My 4-page Comic Book on “Twelve ways to save time at your faculty job”

Trying to save time at your job?  Reading the internet is a great way to start!

While you’re at it, why not Download this 4-page comic book (it’s a 2.3 Mb pdf file)?

Fire up your printer!  I bought all the vapidly cheery photographs from Dreamstime, so it’s all above-board.

And why the hell not read my other comic book as long as you’re here?

About the images: Yes, they are waxy-looking white people, groomed up all fakey and buffed to a high-gloss.  I don’t look like that and neither do you.  Neither do they most of the time.  I get that.

Ode to Carl Sagan

Ok, I was writing with these two Real Writers with my chest all puffed up like “I’ve Arrived, biotch!” and then the guy one says something about how he adored/worshipped Carl Sagan as a child.  AND THEN I HAZ A SAD.  An inexplicable SAD.  “Oh for Chrissakes, what’s the matter with you now?” my Inner Mother inquired compassionately.  So I thought about it.  And I wrote this poem.

Ode to Carl Sagan (0.7 pdf file)


Why I keep writing “f*cking” instead of you-know-what

Why did I write this?  I’m certainly not trying to convert anyone, and as you can see from my comment policy, I am not open to being ‘splained.  If I were I would be a very different person by now.  No, this comes out of my having taught Paleontology in the state of Georgia for three years, where I became adept at counseling young people as to the validity of the “unreconcilable” differences between science and religion that were being crammed down their throats from all sides.  As with most teaching, providing your own example is pretty much all that you can do.  The below is mine, in case it is interesting to somebody.


Every once in a while one of my colleagues gets suspicious enough to ask me if I am religious, usually when I’ve got charcoal wittingly smeared on my face.  I look down, shuffle my feet, and declare with a confident mumble, “Yup.”  It’s not exactly the Apostles’ Creed, I admit, but it effectively brings the conversation to a screeching halt in most professional settings.  For what it’s worth, I’m a Knoxian Calvinist and I’ve read all the Exegeses For Dummies, as well as the Exegeses of the Exegeses which come apart like Russian dolls if you need something to keep busy with while waiting for Kingdom Come.  It’s really quite fertile intellectual ground that a lot of people got burned alive for typesetting, but hey, who am I to judge?  Anyway, this means that I believe in Predestination, which is not easy most days.  Apparently it was part of my Destiny to write this blog.  “That’s not much of a Destiny,” you may be saying to yourself.  Trust me, this is one of the least banal and thankless tasks that is apparently required to fulfill my bargain-bin Destiny.  That’s the whole downside of Predestination, really, is that you can’t trade yours in for a better one.  I like to think I’m out here making the best of things.

One of the ways in which I profess my faith is that I fairly consistently write “f*cking” instead of you-know-what.  This also goes back to the fact that I am a prude with extremely delicate sensibilities.  In fact, it is the strong moral compass dictating my decorum that has allowed me to navigate the morally-grey landscape of Academia this far.  I’ll glibly write “shit” “dickhead” “dammit” and lots of other things without a second thought but I draw the line at “f*ck”.  To repeat the above: I’m actually a raging Jesus-freak.  Because I am an academic Scientist, this means that I’ve been to church three times or more in the last twenty years.  Comments are open so feel free to tell me I’m a deluded little girl for believing in all that mumbo-jumbo.  I’ve got a big old travel mug full of hot steamy masses-opiate right here next to my computer so I’m all ready to go.  If the internet has taught me nothing else it’s that believers looooooooooooovvvvve to be told how they shouldn’t believe just as much as atheists looooooooooooovvvvve to be told how they should.  However, a wise millennial also told me that if I put something about religion in my blog I would get a lot of “traffic” whatever that is, so have at it.  All that tithing gotta come back to momma.

One of my favorite senior scientists, who possesses a rare sense of humor that has weathered even the degradation of fame, likes to chastise me soberly on this point.  “You know, ninety-three percent of the National Academy does not believe in God,” he sermonizes, then skips two beats and adds, “but the other seven percent believe that they are God, so it all balances out.”  Most of the male scientists that I know are atheists, and unlike me, they are quite up-front about it.  Some arguments revolve around the obvious ridiculousness of the very premise of religion, which isn’t particularly persuasive to me because it so closely echoes the consensus reaction to my early scholarly output.  Most of their didactic treatises in contempt of religion feel to me like yet more dry prescriptions from imagination-deficient old men, and I learned the wisdom of ignoring those long ago.  The women I know seem much more content with the idea that everyone should find her own Path.  Science often requires me to believe things that I cannot see, and supplies and supports multiple ways of knowing, and so I find no discord between my work and my theology.  I am worldly enough to appreciate that there is no excess of food and safety on our planet, but it also seems ludicrously presumptive to be an atheist on behalf of suffering millions who are not atheists themselves.  In the end, I suppose that grief and trouble could drag me to disbelief, but I will not go willingly to meet it.  All life’s wonder seems to fold like a telescope with the same question at each junction, “And what causes that?” When one gets to the ultimate base a wholly reasonable recourse may be to shrug one’s shoulders and postulate God.

One of my few relevant opinions to which I consistently give professional voice is that the scientific description of evolution, with its fits and starts of natural selection and extinction, and with all its imperfections, is far more mystical and inspiring than any feeble miracle cooked up inside or outside of Rome.  You’d think that the idea of everything on Earth being related via a profound and singular origination would appeal to institutions so historically down on any hint of division.  Creationism doesn’t bother me because it’s wrong nearly as much as it disappoints me by being a cheap knockoff and an empty piñata.  Choosing not to teach evolution is a vicious withholding from children craving intellectual sustenance.  If you choose not to learn about evolution you senselessly deny yourself an experience just as moving as receiving your first kiss, or holding a newborn baby.  I don’t expect to leave a legacy when I die, unless perhaps it is a comfort to the people who have loved me that I have had the deep and enduring satisfaction of having done all three.  That, and my hand-written directions for coaxing one hundred and fifty cups of watery coffee from the old percolator on Sunday morning.