Why will Marie Curie’s notebooks continue to be kept under lead for 1500 years?

Are important. Fundamentals. Marie Curie’s annotations were key to the modern history of science. She shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband Pierre Curie and physicist Henri Becquerel. Years later, he won the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on his own. He named the first chemical element he discovered, polonium, as his country of origin.

It is that one of the greatest achievements of this scientist was to discover the principle of atomic physics and to study and analyze the phenomenon of radioactivity, a term coined by her, and the discovery of another chemical element in addition to polonium: radium. During the First World War he armed the first radiological centers for military use with mobile X-ray units.

But he took his passion too far. Due to having carried radio test tubes in her pockets for a long time, in addition to the construction of the ray machines, the high radioactive exposure led her to suffer an aplastic anemia from which she died in 1934, at the age of 66, in Paris.

For this simple reason is that to access your documents you must wear special suits and even sign a consent that dissociates the French library from all responsibility. Of course, the papers are full of radioactivity and buried under lead. Even his own body is housed in a lead sarcophagus nearly an inch thick that they had to specially build to prevent any leakage of radio-charged atoms.

Marie and Pierre Curie at the Pantheon in Paris
Marie and Pierre Curie at the Pantheon in Paris

Currently, his last laboratory is guarded for the same reason. Called “the Chernobyl of the Seine”, Marie Curie worked with metals such as thorium, uranium and polonium without any protection. In his autobiography he came to confess that one of his pleasures at night was to see the blue-green flashes that escaped from the metals “like dim fairy lights.”

While handling the metals, the scientist jotted everything down in her notebooks, which were therefore as exposed to radiation levels as she was. However, it was by no means negligent. Its consequences were simply unknown. They were even used massively by industries to manufacture facial creams, razors, baldness treatments and even lingerie. All with its corresponding radioactivity quota. It took a few years for the commercial use of these chemical elements to be banned.

To such an extent, no one imagined the chemical effects that the old laboratory continued to be used for much longer. Only in 1980, five decades after the death of Marie Curie, residents of the place reported an increase in cancer cases in the community, which is why the place was completely emptied. It is estimated that France spent more than 10 million dollars cleaning the laboratory and it is believed that the figure could increase in the coming years, when it is finally dismantled.

Meanwhile, the radioactive notebooks will remain buried for another millennium and a half. Perhaps by then, the hands of the future will be able to appreciate and dive, without major inconvenience, into the memories of one of the most brilliant minds of all time.

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Why will Marie Curie’s notebooks continue to be kept under lead for 1500 years?

Hank Gilbert