Usually and more commonly known as the husband of Marie Curie and the co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, Pierre Curie, born on this day 162 years ago, was also, aside from for his and Marie Curie’s discovery of radium and polonium, known for establishing outstanding foundations in the field of modern physics.
Early scientific endeavours
Having shown signs of advanced mathematical aptitudes, Pierre Curie spent most of his early scientific life in schools and laboratories in Paris. His first major work and contribution were on the topic of crystals, where he studied, with the help of his older brother, the distribution of crystalline matter according to the fundamental laws of symmetry. These studies later concluded in the discovery of piezoelectricity, a concept which dictates the distribution of charges in nonconducting crystals when mechanical pressure is inflicted upon them, stating that positive electric charge appears on one side and negative charge on the opposite side. A mechanism that is now widely used in microphones and telephone communication systems.
In 1882, as he was appointed supervisor at the School of Physics and Industrial chemistry in Paris, Pierre Curie then shifted fields. He began his studies in magnetism to establish the types of transitions between various forms of magnetism, including ferromagnetism, paramagnetism, and diamagnetism. His thesis on magnetism, which established a totally different character between paramagnetism and diamagnetism, owed him a law (Curie’s Law) and a piece of experimental apparatus (Curie balance) to be named after him and was later proved theoretically by other scientists.
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Work and science alongside Marie Curie
After having brought about significant achievements in the fields of magnetism, Pierre Curie, with his wife Marie Skłodowska Curie, worked in the field of radioactivity, having been inspired by the work of Henri Becquerel, who had discovered the principles of radioactivity back in 1896. They studied radioactive materials with high activity levels by extracting samples from ores requiring advanced techniques and technology.
Pierre Curie himself concentrated on the chemical effects of the newfound radioactive material. He used magnetic fields to observe the effect on different types of radiation emitted by radium. Indeed, he observed three different types of behaviors, one which behaved as positively charged particles, one as negative, and one as neutral, laying the foundations for what Ernest Rutherford would soon establish as alpha, beta, and gamma radiation.
He was quickly recognized for his groundbreaking work. However, living in an age where it was uncommon to accept women as established and respectable scientists, it was not until the Nobel Committee agreed to include Marie Curie’s name that Pierre finally accepted the Nobel Prize shared with his wife and Henri Becquerel in 1903. The Nobel Prize legacy continued in the family line as both their daughter and her husband, Irène Joliot-Curie, and Frédéric Joliot-Curie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.
Unfortunately, Pierre Curie, in 1906, soon after having accepted the Nobel Prize, died in a tragic street accident where he got run over by a horse-drawn cart after having slipped and fallen. However, speculations are not mistaken to mention that had he not died in 1906, he would have left us in the same way his wife and children did, succumbing to the drastic effects of radiation. The Curies’ curiosity and scientific ingenuity remain engraved in scientific history, setting the experimental foundations for everything we know about radiation today.