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Women’s History Wednesday: Radiant Ladies of Science March 23, 2011

Posted by thesporkgirl in Women Who Rock, Women's History Wednesday.

For this edition of Women’s History Wednesday please stand back – I am going to try SCIENCE!

With all the talk in the news about radiation threats and nuclear disaster, I thought it would be nice to remember the ladies who contributed to our understanding of radiation. Most people have heard of Marie Curie, but do they remember her actual contributions? Let’s take a little moment.

Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska in Poland in 1867. Her parents were teachers and encouraged her studies. She had a magnetic personality and was engaged to a famous mathematician before settling down in Paris with the love of her life, Pierre Curie.

She set out to investigate a newly discovered element, uranium, for a research thesis. Taking an electrometer (invented by her hu sband Pierre), she discovered that the air around uranium conducts electricity. We are now approaching the description of stuff which is juuussssstttt beyond my full comprehension so forgive me if I don’t get it right and/or stop making sense. Basically she discovered that the only thing which affected the activity of the uranium was how much uranium was present. Meaning it wasn’t some chemical interaction, but something within uranium atoms themselves.

She then sought out other elements that did the same thing, and discovered a bunch which were also radioactive. Except they didn’t call it that yet, because she hadn’t invented the word yet. Anyways so with all these discoveries, she was a smart cookie. And made absolutely sure no one could claim this wasn’t her work. For example that her husband had really done it. She held her ground, and kept at her work, discovering new elements, discovering new ways to extract those elements, and describing the process of radioactivity.

Anyways she was way smarter than me, and she was so smart that she held her own despite numerous attempts to discredit her, and in 1903 she became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She actually won two of them, and kept on doing groundbreaking brilliant research until her death in 1934 from complications from her long exposure to radiation.

So Marie Curie, obviously a trailblazer. But who followed that trail, and made further inroads? I have recently learned about one of the unsung heroes of science, Edith Quimby.

Edith Quimby was one of the very first to carefully study the effects of radiation, in an attempt to discover how much exposure is safe. Not only that, she went on to study how much of various types of radiation are effective and safe in the medical applications of radioactivity. Before that, people were basically guessing. Shoving radium into tumors and waiting to see what happened. Not a joke. She also investigated ways to protect people who handle radioactive substances from the damaging effects of exposure. She worked on the Manhattan Project, too.

She was the first to make her staff wear those little badge thingies you see in the movies that tell you when the redshirt is going to die. No, that’s a real thing. So when the media is trying to scare you about radiation, please do two things. 1) check out the facts being thrown around by journalists who have an incentive to inflate the truth and 2) remember that it was a woman who both discovered it, and another woman who figured out how to work with it safely. Radiation is dangerous, but there is lots of it flying around.

Further reading:

Books: Biography (one of many) Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout,

The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science

Fun stuff: Marie Curie, the shirt!



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