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Marie Curie: A Life by Susan Quinn

Marie Curie: A Life (1995)

by Susan Quinn

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As a piece of writing, I'd rate this biography as merely adequate. Quinn's style is unfortunately rather pedestrian and, occasionally, even sentimental. Marie Curie herself, however, remains a fascinating subject, and there is much to learn about her here, both as a scientist and a historical figure and celebrity at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. For better or worse, Mme. Curie's co-discovery of radium and her lifelong search for other radioactive elements profoundly affected (and continues to affect)human health and history. ( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
Marie Curie should have been a spy. She certainly did a good job of being an international woman of mystery.

This is the fullest of five biographies of Curie I have read -- possibly a little too full. There is arguably a little too much about her social context; at times, this starts to bury the story. And yet, this book deserves credit for not holding anything back. For example, it says straight-out that Curie had an affair with the younger scientist Paul Langevin after Marie's husband Pierre was killed. Indeed, it says it so straight-out that it doesn't really prove it -- it makes a better case for friendship than for actual relationship.

Still, the honesty of this portrayal has much to commend it. There is only one thing that is really lacking: An acknowledgment that both Marie and Pierre Curie were autistic -- and that it was probably their autism that brought them together and made their relationship such a success. But which also brought such grief to Marie after his death; she had no emotional resources to deal with such a loss, and (like most autistics) she was strongly depressive. Perhaps even more strongly so than this book brings out.

That's a nitpick -- after all, autism was still pretty obscure when this book was published. (Maybe someday someone will add a new preface explaining that.) You can find out about Curie's autism on the web.

A bigger nitpick is that author Quinn is clearly not a scientist, and at some places gets a few things wrong. They don't matter much in the big picture, but they can be a little grating for those who do have scientific training. But even those don't really interfere with the broad story.

A final nitpick: The printing job on my copy was lousy; it appears to have been copied from a bad dot-matrix printer. This might be something to watch for; surely by now someone has typeset this thing properly!

Bottom line: This is not an ideal biography. It will probably be many years before we see a proper Curie biography. But it is the best now available. If you want to know how "Manya" Sklowdowska became "Madame Curie," this is a very good place to start. ( )
  waltzmn | Oct 12, 2013 |
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Marie Curie came from a family of chroniclers.
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In nineteenth-century Poland, the name Mary was bound, like Catholicism itself, to the national cause.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0201887940, Paperback)

One hundred years ago, Marie Curie discovered radioactivity, for which she won the Nobel Prize in physics. In 1911 she won an unprecedented second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, for isolating new radioactive elements. Despite these achievements, or perhaps because of her fame, she has remained a saintly, unapproachable genius. From family documents and a private journal only recently made available, Susan Quinn at last tells the full human story. From the stubborn sixteen-year-old studying science at night while working as a governess, to her romance and scientific partnership with Pierre Curie—an extraordinary marriage of equals—we feel her defeats as well as her successes: her rejection by the French Academy, her unbearable grief at Pierre’s untimely and gruesome death, and her retreat into a love affair with a married fellow scientist, causing a scandal which almost cost her the second Nobel Prize. In Susan Quinn’s fully dimensional portrait, we come at last to know this complicated, passionate, brilliant woman.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:18 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

In this stunning and richly textured new biography, Susan Quinn presents us with a far more complicated picture of the woman we thought we knew. Drawing on family documents, Quinn sheds new light on the tragic losses and patriotic passion that infused Marie Sklodowska Curie's early years in Poland. And through access to Marie Curie's journal, closed to researchers until 1990, we hear in her own words of the intimacy and joy of her marriage to Pierre Curie and the depth of her despair at his premature death. The image of Marie Curie as the grieving widow, attired always in black, is familiar to many of us. Much less well known is the affair with a married colleague that helped her recover from her loss. The testimonials of friends, hitherto unavailable, lend this love story a sometimes painful immediacy. Marie Curie's public triumphs are well known: she was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize and one of the few people, to date, to receive a second. Unknown or barely known are the defeats she suffered: her rejection by the French Academy and her public humiliation at the hands of the French press over her love affair. As a scientist, Marie Curie has always been associated with the discovery of radium and polonium. But in fact more important than her work in isolating new elements was her idea that radioactivity was "an atomic process." Susan Quinn's biography provides a closer look at Marie Curie's work, and at the discoveries that led up to it and flowed from it. We come away understanding that Marie Curie was important but not singular: one of a small group of brilliant scientists whose combined efforts brought us to our current understanding of the material universe.… (more)

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