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Marie Curie: Why her papers are still radioactive

Marie Curie, whom Google is celebrating Monday with a Google Doodle in honor of her 144th birthday, lived her life awash in ionizing radiation. More than a century later, her papers are still radioactive. 

By Staff / November 7, 2011

Marie Curie works in a laboratory in this undated photo. Google celebrated Marie Curie on its homepage Monday, on the scientist's 144th birthday.

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Many library collections use special equipment, such as special gloves and climate-controlled rooms, to protect the archival materials from the visitor. For the Pierre and Marie Curie collection at France's Bibliotheque National, it's the other way around. 

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That's because after more than 100 years, much of Marie Curie's stuff – her papers, her furniture, even her cookbooks – are still radioactive. Those who wish to open the lead-lined boxes containing her manuscripts must do so in protective clothing, and only after signing a waiver of liability.  

Along with her husband and collaborator, Pierre, Marie Curie lived her life awash in ionizing radiation. She would carry bottles of the polonium and radium in the pocket of her coat and store them in her desk drawer. In his 2008 book "The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914" historian Philipp Blom quotes Marie Curie's autobiographical notes, in which she describes the mysterious blue-green lights in her lab:

"One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products. It was really a lovely sight and one always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights."

The materials in the tubes did more than stimulate the senses; they electrified the very air. Pierre Curie constructed a chamber with an electrometer that would measure weak electrical currents. When he brought it close to the luminescent tubes, the air inside the chamber would break down into positive and negative ions, creating a weak electric current. The pair called this phenomenon "radioactivity," which, in addition to being a new kind energy, demonstrated that atoms, then thought to be the smallest possible constituent of matter, could emanate even smaller particles. Theirs was the first discovery of the new science of particle physics.

And all the while, the Curies were unwittingly donating their bodies to science.

After its discovery, everyone presumed that something so energetic as radiation just had to be beneficial. In 1903, Pierre Curie, after observing burns on his arm left by the chunk of radium that he tied to it for 10 hours, concluded that he had discovered a cure for cancer. Manufactures of everything from toothpaste to laxatives packed their products with radioactive thorium. Radium bath salts claimed to treat insomnia. "Revigorator" pots – ceramic drinking vessels lined with radon and uranium – were prescribed for flatulence, among other ailments.

It wasn't until the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that radioactive consumer products were banned, too late for industrialist and socialite Eben Byers, who tried to treat an injured arm with nearly 1,400 bottles of radium-infused water. He was buried in a lead-lined coffin. 

Today, radioactive materials are much better understood. In addition to well known applications in medicine and nuclear power, radioactive materials are used to keep our smoke detectors working, to sterilize our fruits and vegetables, to test welded materials, and to calculate the age of organic materials – even of the earth itself. 

But what we didn't know during Marie Curie's life will stay with us for a long time. If you want to check out Madame Curie's papers without a moon suit, you should know that the most common isotope of radium, radium-226, has a half life of 1,601 years.

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