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Hank tells us the story of his favorite genius lady scientist and radioactive superhero, Marie Curie.

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So you know in comic books uh the superhero is often created in some kind of lab accident?  Bruce Banner gets exposed to gamma radiation and becomes the incredible hulk when he gets angry and Spider-Man got his powers from a radioactive spider? Well that's how the world works in comic books but it's not how the world works in real life. Not usually anyway. Though I am willing to make one exception to that statement and that exception is Marie Curie. 


So you know Marie Curie right uh this is her. She was the person who coined the term radioactivity, the first person to win a Nobel Prize in two different disciplines. She was the first woman uh to get global recognition for anything to do with science. And when you say her name in an American accent people think you are talking about Mariah Carey, so be careful with that. Marie Curie, Mariah Carey, Marie Curie, Mariah Carey, Marie Curie, Mariah Carey, Marie Curie, Mariah Carey. 

If you don't know about Marie Curie then you will very shortly. I have the pleasure of introducing you to this particular science bad ass. There are some pretty uncanny superhero similarities going on here and she's not one of those single power superheros like those X-men chumps. You're pretty much the superman of science. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that popular culture has not yet designed a female superhero that was more bad ass than the actual Marie Curie.

She was a super genius. She was a super patriot. She was selfless. She was a total work horse. She didn't care what the world thought about her and ultimately she left the world a much better place. Also she was totally radioactive. But we are going to get to that in a second. 

So like every good superhero her beginnings were humble, she was born Marie Sklodowska in Warsaw Poland in 1867. Back in the days after Austria, Prussia, and the Russian Empire had decided to join forces and invade Poland and split up the country like a pizza at a frat party. Marie's home town of Warsaw was in the third of the country that was being occupied by Russia. So lucky. Ya know because the Russian Empire had such a reputation for compassionate and benevolent rule. Not actually.

Russian controlled Poland was a really sucky place to live especially if you happened to be Polish at that time. But Marie's family was well respected and they did alright for themselves considering the circumstances. But still since her family had spent a lot of money trying to kick the fricking Russians out of their country they didn't have a lot of money left. They certainly didn't have enough money to send all of their kids to university. But lets be honest here uh highly educated Polish women weren't in uh really high demand at this point in history. But nevertheless Marie and her sister Bronya decided to make a deal. They would go to university and they'd do it by putting each other through. Bronya went first and Marie became a governess in order to pay for her sisters education and then, ya there was some drama. 

Marie and the son of her employee fell in love and his parents were like hell no you can't marry her shes too poor. But then she had to keep living with those people and teaching their kids so when Bronya was done with medical school Marie was like peace out losers I'm going to Paris. And you know who she met in Paris? This smokin' hot french Physicist named Pierre Curie. So Pierre and Marie met and she was like I love physics and chemistry and he was like me too and by the way you are so beautiful muah muah muah muah muah.

So Marie and Pierre started working together at this lab that he managed in Paris. And Marie decided that she wanted to get her doctorate in chemistry. Which was pretty ballsy considering that number of women in Europe who had a doctorate in the sciences were the same as the number of women currently on the moon. But whatever you can't tell Marie Curie that she can't do something.

So Marie was trying to figure out what she wanted to do her dissertation on and it turned out that she was really interested in these newly discovered uranium rays. That this guy Henry Becquerel, Bonjour, had recently noticed were being emitted by uranium salts.  Among other things Becquerel noticed that when gasses were passed through these uranium rays they suddenly were able to conduct electricity. But when he let his buddies know about this at the Monday meeting of L'Academy de Sciences all the scientists were like "that's really cool Henry so what kind of sandwich have we got today? Watercress again? Aw man!".

So most scientists weren't particularly interested in these rays which seems weird. I guess they had a lot of things to be thinking about. But Marie was fascinated by it. Pierre who was fiddling around with some crystals at the time decided that he would rather be doing what Marie was doing. So together they pretty much went through the entire periodic table of elements looking for elements that were, as they termed it, radioactive.

It wasn't long before they discovered totally new elements to add to the periodic table that were radioactive; Polonium, which Marie named after her beloved homeland of Poland, and Radium. 

Marie also drew the absolutely ground breaking conclusion that radioactivity wasn't some kind of molecular interaction it was actually coming from the atom itself. It's hard to overstate how revolutionary this discovery was and from a conceptual stand point it's defiantly Madam Curie's greatest contribution to science

So from then on Marie and Pierre Curie were on fire. They were constantly studying the radioactivity in a crazy old potato shed behind Pierre's school. 

In the ensuing years they had a couple of little girls and they were in general totally broke. They taught all week long to try and pay the bills and in the evening and on the weekends they spent all their time trying to separate radium out from other elements. 

This took processing literally tons of this stuff called pitchblende that they had to get from slag heaps just so they could isolate teensy little amounts of pure radium needed to determine the elements atomic weight. Processing pitchblende was thoroughly a disgusting process that involved a ton of toxic fumes plus don't forget of course it's radioactive.

But in 1903 Marie defended her doctoral dissertation and the exam comity decided that it was pretty much the most important dissertation that they had ever heard of ever. Later that same year she, Pierre, and Becquerel won a Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering radioactivity. Marie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for anything and the first woman in Europe to become a doctor of science and probably the first person to win a Nobel Prize and defend their dissertation in the same calendar year. 

Through the years it became pretty obvious to Marie and Pierre that radioactivity wasn't particularly good for you. Mostly they found this out by doing really sort of insanely stupid experiments like Pierre trying to burn his frickin arm off with radium salts. 

I'm not sure if you're ready for this so get ready for it because its sort of sad, by the time Pierre died in 1906 because his head got squished under a horse drawn carriage he was a pretty sick dude. And that's kinda unsurprising because he and Marie both kept little vials of radium in their pockets all the time.I don't know if that was an experiment or like a good luck charm. Marie kept radium salts by her bedside. All of their belongings, their cloths their furniture, even Marie's cookbooks to this day have to be stored in lead containers because they are radioactive.  S

So even though Marie discovered all of this it was killing her and probably would have killed her husband if he hadn't been killed by that carriage. So even though Marie discovered that this stuff was probably going to kill her husband and probably also going to kill her she kept on working with it. Because with her sort of uncanny vision of the future she had figured out that not only could it be used to kill healthy cells but maybe, if she could isolate it, it could be used to help kill cancer cells. And if she wasn't going to do the work to isolate pure radium to help save human kind who was? 

So like I said Pierre was killed by that carriage in 1906. Marie became a single mother with two small children. She'd also inherited Pierre's chair at the Sorbonne Academy in Paris, becoming its first female professor. But being a total genius lady actually wasn't that easy back then, all of her influence and all of her expertise was making people uncomfortable and they could eat it as far as I'm concerned.

But in 1911 she was awarded another Nobel Prize this time for chemistry for discovering radium and polonium. But the Nobel comity suggested that she not accept the prize after every man, woman, and pretty much child had uh figured out that she was having an affair with one of Pierre's graduate students after his death. 

So what do you think our girl did? Well she went up their and she accepted the Nobel Prize anyway. And then she turned right around and she had her and Pierre's Nobel Prizes melted down so that they could be used for something more useful. And ya World War One was breaking out and you better believe that Marie wasn't going to sit around and not do something to help.

She developed a portable x-ray machine and drove it around helping soldiers who were wounded in the field. Conditions were primitive out there and she was carrying enough radioactive gas to kill a horse but whatever. The french government awarded her the Legion of Honour for her contributions to the war effort and she was like "thanks I'll put these over here in this drawer with all my other, oh never mind I had them melted down to help people, but thanks!"

So Marie lived a lot longer than one would have expected her to considering that every organ in her body was probably glowing and pulsing with green light.

She was 66 when she died of leukemia and yes that was almost certainly because of the gamma rays that had been constantly bombarding her body. In 1995 her remains were transferred to the Pantheon in Paris where she remains the only woman entombed there on her own merits. A year after she died her daughter Irène and her husband each won a Nobel Prize for their discovery of the creation of artificial radiation. Which means that the Curies combined hold the most Nobel Prizes of any family ever.

OK so now we all agree that Marie Curie was a radioactive superhero right? Let's look at the specs. Super genius, check. Selfless as hell, check. Unstoppable work horse, check. Uncanny ability to keep it classy in the face of sexism and prejudice, check. Radioactive, check and mate.

If you want to learn more about Marie Curie and why the hell wouldn't you? There is information all about her in the description. If you want to uh suggest other cool people who we should talk about on Sci Show please do either on Facebook or Twitter and the YouTube comments below.