The Curie Destiny

Have you ever heard of the remarkable Maria Skłodowska-Curie? The trait of being eager to find novel discoveries ran in the blood of the family. You may or may not know but this female scientist (who in fact received two Nobel prices), had two daughters, were one was nearly as successful. Irene Joliot-Curie was a French chemist, physicist and politician, from a Polish ancestry. Together with her husband, Frederic Joliot-Curie, they have been awarded the Noble Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for their discovery of artificial radioactivity. She was also one of the first three women to be a member of a French government. She became relevant in the Scientific Research under the Popular Front in 1936.

Irene’s scientific journey started during World War 1. She taught doctors how to locate shrapnels in bodies using radiology. As well as, she taught herself how to repair the equipment. During the two bomb sites, she moved through out families and battlegrounds. For this role, in helping her mother, she received a military medal for her assistance in X-ray facilities, in countries such as France and Belgium. In 1918, after the war, she completed her baccalaureate degree in physics and mathematics. She worked as her mother’s assistant teaching at the Radium Institute, specialising in radiology. Irene became a Doctor of science in 1925.

The story of Irene Joliot-Curie’s race for the Nobel Prize started to finalise in 1928, when Walther Bothe initiated the bombardment of light elements with alpha particles. Alpha particles, also known as alpha rays or alpa radiation consist of two protons, as well as two neutrons bounded together into a partial similar, quite identical to a helium-4 nucleus.

The scientist and his student Herbert Becker noticed that as a result of the bombardment of alpha particles at boron, magnesium or aluminium atoms, the emission of high-energy gamma radiation was carried out; this was consistent to the predictions decided upon earlier. However, surprisingly, they observed the emission of gamma rays emitted by the bombarded lithium and beryllium atoms. It was surprising because the atoms of these elements were too small to be broken by alpha particles. They stated that the radiation emitted by beryllium atoms bombarded with alpha particles has greater energy than alpha particles, and that during the reaction there was no emission of protons. The excess energy of gamma rays comes from the decay of the nucleus. As a result, the study of the German scientists intrigued Irene and her husband Frederick JoliotCurie. The scientist recalled years later that “having a large amount of polonium allowed Frederick Joliot and me to carry out research that led to the discovery of the neutron and artificial radioactivity.”

However, finally in 1934, the Curies finally made the discovery that helped them seal their place in the scientific history. They realised the alchemists dream of turning one element into another: creating radioactive nitrogen and many other molecules, compounds and isotopes such as unstable isolate of phosphorus released were possible… Their main discovery is formally known as positron emission or beta decay, where a proton in the radioactive nucleus changes to a neutron.

Irene Joliot-Curie had many varied discoveries that led to her Noble price and world wide recognition; such as even nuclear fusion to create the first French nuclear reactor, being part of the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), discovering more information about beta decay and in her early years she received a military medal for her help in X-ray facilities. A famous quote from her experience is the following, “The farther the experiment is from theory, the closer it is to the Nobel Prize”Beside being a prominent figure in the science community, she was active in the political world as well. For instance she joined the Socialist Party to express her ideas about the fascist movement.

Maria Rutkowska

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