May Birthday: Pierre Curie

May 07, 2012

PierrecurieThis month, we recognize the birthday of one of the world’s most notable physicists, Pierre Curie.  Born on May 15th back in 1859, Pierre would go on to win the Nobel Prize in physics with his wife, Marie. 

Pioneers in the study of radioactivity, Marie and Pierre worked on several projects, including the isolation of polonium and radium.  While working with a student, Pierre first discovered nuclear energy by identifying the continuous emission of heat from radium particles.  He also found that some radiation emissions of radioactive substances were positively charged, while other were negative or neutral.  Through the use of magnetic fields, he was able to identify alpha, beta and gamma radiation. 

During his doctoral studies, Pierre turned his attention to magnetism.  Through the use of several self-constructed balances, electrometers and other tools, he found that the magnetic properties of a given substance change at a certain temperature.  After reaching a certain temperature, a magnet will essentially lose its magnetism.  We now recognize that temperature as the Curie point.   

Despite Pierre and Marie’s hardships of inadequate laboratory facilities and financial stresses, the couple went on to set the base for today’s research in nuclear physics.  In 1903, they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their research into the “radiation phenomena.” 

His death came in 1906, during a street accident in Paris in which he was run over by a heavy, horse-drawn carriage.  Though devastated by the death of her husband, Marie continued in her research and received a second Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911.  After this, she was able to convince the French government to fund the construction of a private Radium Institute now known as the Institut Curie.  Built in 1914, the facility became the site at which research was conducted in chemistry, physics, and medicine.    

Together, this infamous couple opened the doors to today’s research in physics, chemistry, and related sciences and many note the couple as being truly ahead of their time. 


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