Saturday, October 07, 2006

One Smart Family

If you aren't into the science history stuff, you might enjoy Discover's 20 Things You Didn't Know About the Nobel Prize instead. It's everything you always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask . . .

If you've been following the Nobel Prize awards this week, you probably noticed that Roger Kornberg won this year's prize in Chemistry "for his studies of the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription". His work has helped to figure out the machinery that the cell uses to copy the information in DNA into messenger RNA. The messenger RNAs encode the sequence of amino acids that make up proteins. What makes this special is that Roger's father, Arthur Kornberg, won the Nobel Prize in 1959, for his work on DNA synthesis.

It turns out, though, that the Kornbergs aren't the only such scientifically brilliant family*. The Accidental Blogger has compiled a list of all the related people who have won Nobel prizes. Most of the listings are father-son pairs, but there is even a pair of brothers, and an entire family. It's the family - the Curies - that I find fascinating.

Marie Sklodowska-Curie and Pierre Curie

Marie Sklodowska was born in 1867 in Warsaw. Unable to attend the university there, she traveled to Paris at the age of 24. She graduated first in her undergraduate class at the Sorbonne in 1893, where she studied physics and mathematics. After obtaining her master's degree in mathematics, she earned her doctorate under the supervision of Henri Becquerel. She was the first woman in France to earn a doctorate, and the first to teach at the Sorbonne. It was at the Sorbonne that she met her husband-to-be, Pierre Curie. They studied the radioactive uranium ore, pitchblend, ultimately purifying two new radioactive elements, radium and polonium.

In 1903 she won the Nobel prize in physics, along with her husband Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel for "researches on the radiation phenomena". Pierre was killed three years later in a carriage accident, and Becquerel died in 1908.

Marie continued her research. She also convinced the French government and the Pasteur Foundation to fund a "Radium Institute", now called the Curie Institute, in Paris and raised her two daughters, Irene and Eve.

In the fall of 1911, Curie was the only woman to attend an important physics conference in Belgium. In her absence, a French newspaper published intimate letters she had exchanged with former student of her husband, Paul Langevin, who was married. In the midst of the scandal, she won a second Nobel prize in 1911, this time in chemistry, for the discovery and isolation of radium and the discovery of polonium.

During WWI, Curie used her resources to get X-ray machines to the battlefront, to help the treatment of wounded soldiers. She also prepared small tubes of radon gas that doctors could use to destroy diseased tissue. After the war she continued her research, but her focus was on running the Radium Institute. She intentionally refused to patent the purification process for radium or its applications in medicine. She eventually had to travel to the U.S. to obtain radium for her own studies.

Marie Sklowdowska Curie died in 1934 from aplastic anemia, almost certainly caused by prolonged radiation exposure.

Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie
Irene Curie was born in 1897, the oldest daughter of Pierre and Marie Cure. Like her mother, she studied science at the Sorbonne in Paris. However, her education was interrupted by World War I. During the war she worked at her mother's side until she was allowed to operate an X-ray station by herself.

After the war was over, she earned her doctorate studying polonium. She eventually married fellow-scientist Frederic Joliot, who she collaborated with in her research.
The Joliot-Curies won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1935, for their synthesis of radioactive elements. Irene looks very sad in her official photograph, perhaps because her mother had died the year before.

Irene eventually became a professor the Faculty of Science in Paris, the Chair of Nuclear Physics at the Sorbonne and in 1946 became the Director of the Radium Institute. She died of leukemia in 1956, probably caused by radiation exposure.

Marie and Pierre's younger daughter, Eve, is best know for the biography she wrote of her mother, Madame Curie. I wouldn't doubt that she soaked up a lot of science from her mother and sister. She is apparently still living in France.

Is it any coincidence that these brilliant women scientists had talented scientist husbands? Probably not. Successful scientific research requires long hours at the bench and a passion and devotion to the work. It's much easier to spend your waking hours working in the lab with a spouse or partner that understands and shares your passion. In addition, while it was (and is) socially acceptable for a man to work long hours while his wife takes care of home and children, the reverse was not. A recent report by a National Academies panel concluded that this is one reason for the discrepancy between the number of women and men in academic science research.
7. Academic organizational structures and rules contribute significantly to the underuse of women in academic science and engineering. Rules that appear quite neutral may function in a way that leads to differential treatment or produces differential outcomes for men and women. Structural constraints and expectations built into academic institutions assume that faculty members have substantial spousal support. The evidence demonstrates that anyone lacking the work and family support traditionally provided by a "wife" is at a serious disadvantage in academe.
They go on to point out that, as more and more women work full time, male scientists are losing that support as well.

It's sad to think of the potential Marie Curies that never had the opportunity to become scientists.

* I know, I know, a Nobel prize isn't awarded on brilliance alone. However, you have to have done something significant to win.

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Anonymous Razib Ahmed said...

Thanks for this article. I could get so much information about Nobel prize from it that it is amazing how blogging is changing the Internet world.

8:33 AM  

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