Pierre Currie (1859-1906)

HE HAD THE HAPPIEST OF CHILDHOODS, but the unorthodox nature of his education meant that Pierre Curie was never quite accepted by the French scientific establishment. His father, a physician, believed that his son's intellect and personality could be best nurtured through private tutoring.

By the age of 14 Pierre had demonstrated a passion and a gift for mathematics. At 16 he began university studies and at 18 he was awarded the equivalent of an American master's degree. But lack of money forced him to put off work toward his doctorate indefinitely. Instead he became a poorly paid laboratory instructor.

"It is easy to overlook those who have not the active support of influential persons."--Marie Curie

His first important scientific collaboration was with his older brother, Jacques. By the time Pierre was 21 and Jacques 24, the brothers had discovered the piezoelectric effect (from the Greek word meaning "to press"). The Curie brothers had found that when pressure is applied to certain crystals, they generate electrical voltage. Reciprocally, when placed in an electric field these same crystals become compressed. Recognizing the connection between the two phenomena helped Pierre to develop pioneering ideas about the fundamental role of symmetry in the laws of physics.

The brothers meanwhile put their discovery to immediate practical use by devising the piezoelectric quartz electrometer, which can measure faint electric currents. Nearly two decades later, the device helped Marie Curie in her early research. In the century following its discovery by the Curie brothers, the piezoelectric effect was put to use in such familiar everyday devices as microphones, quartz watches, and electronic components.

PIERRE WAS ALSO A PIONEER in the study of magnetism. He discovered a basic relationship between magnetic properties and temperature. The temperature at which certain magnetic materials undergo a marked change in their magnetic properties is today called the Curie point after Pierre. He also invented a highly sensitive scientific balance, similarly named in his honor, and likewise extremely useful in Marie's later work.

"[In science] we can aspire to accomplish something...every discovery, however small, is a permanent gain." -- Pierre Curie to Marie, 1894, urging her to join him in "our scientific dream."

Only at the urging of Marie Sklodowska, whom he met in the spring of 1894, did Pierre take the trouble of writing up his research on magnetism as a doctoral thesis. A few months before their marriage he was awarded a doctorate of science. When Marie's own thesis research led her to believe that she was on the verge of discovering a new element, he joined her in the search. After their discovery of polonium and radium, the Curies decided on a division of labor: he concentrated on investigating the properties of radium, while she did chemical experiments with a view to preparing pure compounds.

So it was Pierre (with a student) who noticed that a speck of radium spontaneously and perpetually emits heat--discovering what is now called nuclear energy. He was also, with collaborators, the first to report the decay of radioactive materials and the skin burns that radioactive substances can inflict.

HAPPIEST WHEN WORKING in the laboratory, Pierre despised the politics and flattery that were needed to advance in the tight little world of Paris professors. Still it hurt when he was denied positions he deserved, for example in 1902 when he tried and failed to enter the French Academy of Sciences and in 1903 when he was rejected for a professorship of mineralogy.

"My husband and I were so closely united by our affection and our common work that we passed nearly all of our time together."--Marie Curie

Marie Curie never forgave France for what she considered its rude treatment of her husband--the failure to give him either the honors or the laboratory facilities he merited. After his untimely death in a traffic accident in 1906, she devoted the rest of her life to erecting a laboratory in Paris that would be worthy of Pierre's memory. In a short, eloquent biography of him, she helped perpetuate an image of the struggling scientist that encouraged the public to give researchers the support she had wanted for Pierre.

Also: Radioactivity

Exhibit Contents

2000 - American Institute of Physics