Why are Marie Curie’s notebooks kept in a cellar under several layers of lead?

In the cellars of the National Library of France, kept in special boxes with several layers of lead, are some of the most important documents in the History of Science.

To be able to consult them, researchers can only do so wearing protective suits almost like cosmonauts and must sign a consent exempting the institution from any responsibility.

They are probably the best kept documents in a library that houses some of the rarest and oldest books in the world.

But the suspicion with which these notebooks are kept goes beyond their value to science and knowledge.

And they are highly radioactive.

These are the notebooks of Marie Curie, the only woman who has won the Nobel Prize twice and who, together with her husband Pierre, discovered not only new chemical elements, but also the principles of atomic physics and radioactivity.

Like all objects that were close to the couple, notebooks can be highly harmful to humans.

Notebooks will be radioactive for the next 1,500 years

And it is that although the Curies discovered radium and polonium (named after Poland, the country where Marie was born on November 7, 1867), scientists never imagined the negative effects that radioactivity could have on humans .

In fact, Marie Curie died in 1934 of aplastic anemia, probably the result of her frequent exposure to radium and polonium, the samples of which she often carried in her pocket.

Thus, everything related to her and that is still preserved, must be kept with extra precautions and in lead boxes … including the scientist’s own corpse, the first of a woman to be buried, by her own merits, in the Pantheon of Paris, the famous tomb of the glories of France.

When it was moved there, a lead sarcophagus had to be built almost an inch thick to prevent the radioactive atoms still emanating from the corpse of the “mother of modern physics” from escaping into the environment.

And scientists believe that they will be like this, like notebooks, for at least 1,500 years, the average time it will take for radio atoms, the new metal to which Curie gave her life and changed her life, to disintegrate. You see the history of physics and chemistry.

A radioactive house

In the south of Paris, in the commune of Arcueil, there is a three-story building that is prohibited from entering.

A high wall full of graffiti and crowned with barbed wire guards the entrance. Surveillance cameras watch for intruders, while the government checks their surroundings from time to time with strange devices.

The house on Rue de la Convention, however, is abandoned: it is the last laboratory where Marie Curie worked until 1934 and another of the places where the levels of contamination from the scientist’s experiments left high levels of radiation for centuries to come. come.

They call it the “Chernobyl of the Seine”, because of the radiation levels that were detected there … many years after Curie’s death.

And it is that, in homage to the scientist, the laboratory continued to be used for decades as the headquarters of the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Faculty of Sciences of Paris, without knowing that the radioactivity stored in its walls, carpets, floors, ceilings and wallpapers was too tall for humans to work on it.

And it is that at the end of her life, Marie Curie worked from there, without protection, with some of the most harmful radioactive metals, from thorium and uranium to polonium.

As he wrote in his autobiography, one of his pleasures at night was to see the blue-green flashes that escaped from the metals “like dim fairy lights.”

And when handling radioactive metals, he went, wrote and drew in his notebooks, which were impregnated with the atoms of everything that Curie, born as Maria Salomea Skłodowska, touched.

It would be several years after his death for most nations, beginning with the United States (in 1938), to ban these metals for commercial use.

It was a blow to several industries, because as a result of the discoveries of Curie and her awards, radioactive materials had become so popular that they were used to make everything from face creams to razors and even underwear, with the most diverse purposes, from treating hair loss to male impotence.

The long way

However, it was not until the 1980s that the laboratory was finally emptied, after numerous neighbors, according to reports at the time, reported increasing cases of cancer in the community.

Years passed before the presence of radioactivity was discovered in the notebooks.

In one of the inspections, traces were found not only of radio, but of a uranium isotope with a half-life of 4.5 billion years.

It was then that it was decided to move Curie’s belongings, including her notebooks, considered the National Heritage of France, to a safe place in the National Library.

In the 1990s, the laboratory received a thorough cleaning, but French authorities still prohibit entry and continue to periodically monitor radiation levels in its surroundings, including the river.

It is estimated that France has already spent more than US $ 10 million on cleaning the site and it is believed that the figure could multiply in the coming years, when the house-laboratory is finally dismantled.

The notebooks, meanwhile, will continue to be guarded for more than a millennium and a half under lead urns, hoping that humans, from some distant future, can once again play without special (and almost space) suits the hand-held testimony of one of the the most brilliant women in history.


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Why are Marie Curie’s notebooks kept in a cellar under several layers of lead?

Hank Gilbert