Monday, March 15, 2021

Radioactive science for the masses

 My wife and I watched the movie, Radioactive, based on the life of Marie Sklodowska Curie. She was an amazing scientist who showed incredible perseverance, particularly in the face of discrimination by the scientific establishment in France at the beginning of the twentieth century, and attacks in the media because of her gender, nationality, and personal life.


The movie is good entertainment and creative, maybe a bit too creative at times. But they be a matter of personal taste. There were many things that I learnt, some substantial and others just interesting trivia, particularly after reading more on Wikipedia. Here are a few.

Curie did not only discover radioactivity, the elements radium and polonium (named after her native Poland), but also was the founder of nuclear medicine. 

One can easily forget that more than a century ago, chemistry labs were very basic and that producing pure samples was a tedious process. For example, a tonne of pitchblende (uranium oxide ore) had to be crushed and processed to produce just one-tenth of a gram of radium chloride.

Back then the boundaries between physics and chemistry were fuzzy. Marie received a Nobel Prize in both. I wonder whether the legacy of joint chemistry-physics institutes in France was essential to de Gennes's work in soft matter.

Both Curie's started out in solid-state physics. Pierre Curie and his older brother discovered piezoelectricity. Pierre discovered the transition temperature for ferromagnetism (Curie temperature), and the Curie law for the temperature dependence of the magnetic susceptibility in a paramagnet. He followed his wife into nuclear research.

After her husband's tragic death, she had an affair with Paul Langevin and was vilified in the press.

A strong critique of the movie is by Geraldine McGinty. On the one hand, I agree with her concerns. On the other hand, I am just happy that "Hollywood" is exposing people to this extraordinary woman and her science. Maybe my hopes and expectations are just too low. 

This relates to an ongoing debate about to what extent movies based on historical figures have to be historically accurate in every detail. The Crown (which I love) has brought these debates to the fore. Simon Jenkins states The Crown's fake history is as corrosive as fake news. Recent movies about scientists also raise the question to what extent the science must be absolutely accurate.

What do you think?

I welcome other comments on the movie, particularly from women.

1 comment:

  1. Rosalind Franklin's portrayal by Nicole Kidman has been hailed a success by critics and have been the subject of praise and awards.