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.