The Long View: Two Scientists

Albert Einstein and Marie Curie

Albert Einstein and Marie Curie

This essay from John is an extended reflection on the lives of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, who were famous at about the same time for about the same reason.

One hundred years later, I note that famous people’s personal lives are approximately as scandalous now as they were then. The mid-twentieth century placed a big premium on at least the appearance of propriety, and perhaps even encouraged it some, but the fin de siècle and Edwardian eras were a little bit more rowdy.

Because of Tim Powers’ novel Three Days to Never, I was familiar with Einstein’s martial adventures, but Curie’s were new to me. There is a fair bit here on the context in which both scientists’ work went on, which is handy if you like to see how everything fits together.

Two Scientists:
Common Topics in Biographies of
Albert Einstein and Marie Curie

An Essay
John J. Reilly

Toward the end of 2006, I happened to read back-to-back the biographies of two scientists who rose to prominence around 1900: Denis Brian’s Einstein (1997) and Susan Quinn’s Marie Curie (1996). Albert Einstein’s dates are 1879 – 1955 and Marie Curie’s (born Maria Sklodowska) are 1867 – 1934. To some extent their areas of study overlapped, so it’s not surprising that they often met, or even that their families sometimes vacationed together. Nonetheless, I was struck by the parallels in their lives, so much so that I began to wonder whether the parallels lay primarily in the lives of these contemporaneous people or in the interests of their contemporaneous biographers.

The biographies emphasize that both began as marginal, even bohemian figures, and ended their careers in that eminence beyond emeritus that attaches to the founders of major institutions. Einstein’s prestige saved the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton from becoming just a make-work project for émigré Europeans, while the French state eventually created the Radium Institute to accommodate the Widow Curie. They both won Nobel Prizes: Curie twice, once for physics in 1903 with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, and again for chemistry in 1911 on her own. She is the only person so far to win two Nobel prizes. Both her prizes were connected with the accomplishment she is famous for, the discovery and refinement of radium. Einstein received his prize in 1921 for his early work on the photoelectric effect rather than for relativity. Both Curie and Einstein became celebrities before the term was invented. Both had scandalous personal episodes that these biographies treated with similar, lengthy sympathy, though Einstein and his executors did a good job of keeping his scandal confidential until long after his death.

Maria Sklodowska’s outsider status rested on being Polish, and a woman, and an agnostic; in the first and third points she resembled her father. She came from a landless branch of the numerous Catholic gentry in the Russian-controlled part of Poland. Both her parents were teachers in Warsaw. Her biographer emphasizes just what an odd place Russian Poland was. The official language of instruction in the schools, even the private schools, was Russian. This led on one hand to the preparation of Potemkin curricula to show the state inspectors when they came to visit, and on the other to remarkably high levels of illiteracy. Still, readers will be struck by how much less onerous the Russian Empire was than Poland’s later status as a nominally independent ally of the USSR. Apparently, people, goods, and money could flow to and from Poland without much difficulty.

When the time came for Maria to consider a place for higher education (which really was impossible for women in Poland at the time), the options were St. Petersburg or Paris: Berlin was not even on the screen. That, perhaps, tells us something about the cultural spheres of influence in Eastern Europe at this period. When Marie, as she was soon known, arrived at the Sorbonne, she was very unusual in being a female student but less so by being a foreigner. The two actually went together: a far higher percentage of foreign students were women than could be found among the native French students.

Einstein was an outsider in part because he was Jewish, but far more because of his personal eccentricities. His family was not observant. His biographer describes how Einstein’s parents took care to dampen an episode of adolescent piety on their son’s part. Einstein was born in Germany, but spent much of his youth in Italy, where his father and uncle operated one of a series of unsuccessful electrical engineering firms. His biographer points out that Einstein was a pretty good nuts-and-bolts engineer. He held several patents, for instance, and continued to freelance as a patent consultant long after he had become a famous physicist. Curie’s biographer makes much the same claims for her subject: after all, Curie received two Nobel prizes for practicing table-top physics on a nearly industrial scale. Later, as a director of a government-subsidized institute, she managed what was in effect a small processing-plant for heavy elements.

Einstein’s early academic career was spent largely in Switzerland, with a brief posting to Prague in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Again, the biographer is keen to make Eastern Europe seem as surreal as possible. In contrast to Curie, he was not a super-student. He was obviously very good at math and physics: he was able to secure just enough faculty patronage to ensure that his weaknesses in other areas were overlooked. He was not aggressive or confrontational, but he had no gift for faculty politics. He was the sort of person who would appear at an important social event not wearing socks. He wasn’t being rude; he would just forget. Once he had colleagues rather than superiors, however, he was able to develop the personal contacts that would secure him an appointment in 1914 at the University of Berlin. There he would remain until leaving Europe for Princeton in 1933.

Pierre and Marie Curie would have one of the great collaborative marriages in the history of science. Pierre Curie was older than Marie (his dates are 1859 – 1906). He came from yet another agnostic family, which was not so odd in academic France at the time, but he was very unusual in not having passed through the great preparatory schools. He was home-schooled; then he just showed up at the Sorbonne and started passing tests. He shared Einstein’s ineptitude for professionally advantageous socializing, but the lack of institutional alternatives to the Sorbonne in the French system may actually have helped to keep his professional progress steady. The Curies had two daughters, one of whom, Irène, would become a physicist and marry Frédéric Joliot: they became another noted husband-and-wife scientific team.

The interesting thing about the personal life of Einstein is that he tried to do just that with one Mileva Maric. She had been a science student, too. Unfortunately, she was not only not a super-student, she was unable to pass the Swiss qualifying exams that would have allowed her to teach science. They would have a daughter out of wedlock, whom Einstein insisted on giving up for adoption. He lost track of the child, but later dreaded the effect on his reputation should she make public her connection with him. He and Mileva married and later had two sons. The trajectory of their marriage seems to have been that, first, they could talk about science; then they could talk about domestic matters; then they could not talk at all. Einstein made no effort to remain faithful, and while he never abandoned Mileva in the sense of leaving her and his sons without support, the tale of the collapse of the marriage does him little credit. They divorced in 1919, against Mileva’s wishes. Albert later married his cousin, one Elsa Löwenthal, who never aspired to be his intellectual equal.

All these people were affected, more or less, by the intellectual fashions of their time. Einstein was mildly interested in spiritualism, at least to the extent of being persuaded that some reports of psychical phenomena were true, but he never pursued the matter. Pierre Curie, in contrast, was an enthusiast and a frequent participant at séances. Marie seems to have been persuaded, too, but like Einstein, she never chose to devote her own time to research in this area. Perhaps in a victory of ideology over the metaphysical impulse, both Curies felt that Émile Zola had said all that needed to be said when he attacked the reports of miracles at Lourdes. It would be inaccurate to call Einstein an atheist, or even an agnostic: he had a strong mystical streak, and though he repeatedly insisted he did not believe in a personal God, he made quite a few references to the Lord that do not seem to have been meant wholly metaphorically.

Einstein and the Curies were “people of the Left” in a general sort of way, but none was particularly interested in politics. Nonetheless, Marie’s academic career after the death of her husband in a traffic accident was affected by the Dreyfusard – anti-Dreyfusard structure which the politics of the Third Republic retained long after the Dreyfus Affair itself had been resolved.

Marie Curie was an obvious candidate when an opening became available for membership in the French Academy. However, there was another, somewhat senior, scientific candidate, one associated with the Catholic Institute, who had respectable qualifications. Curie’s work had been more important, but she was young and it was arguably the older candidate’s turn. This was the sort of question about which reasonable people could differ, but the anti-Dreyfusard press in particular was not in the business of being reasonable. Through some newspaper alchemy, Marie Curie became the candidate of a Jewish-atheist cabal at the Sorbonne, a cabal that sought to undermine French family life by touting the accomplishments of a woman working outside the home. We are informed that, even then, the French were worried about demographic collapse because of low birthrates: a reasonable point, though we should also note that France would have actually lost population in the first half of the 20th century had it not been for immigration from Eastern Europe. For whatever reason, Curie lost the election. That would not have been very important, were it not for the fact that the press had assigned her an ideological category and would react accordingly when she next became a figure of public note.

Marie Curie came close to public disgrace when, not long after the affair of the French Academy, she was revealed as The Other Woman in a different sort of affair, this one concerning the separation of her colleague, Paul Langevin, from his wife.

Langevin was an important physicist: Einstein once named him the person most likely to have formulated Special Relativity if Einstein had not done so first. In any case, by his own account, Langevin had a singularly unhappy marriage. His wife was physically abusive, he said, and extremely jealous; in Curie’s case, with good reason. After the scandal passed and the Langevins reconciled, she demonstrated that she was willing to tolerate her husband keeping an ordinary mistress of lower social status. The Nobel Laureate Curie, however, was at least his equal and a threat to the marriage.

The aggrieved wife went to the press and played the story brilliantly. Once again, the press chose sides; the biographer treats us to long samples of the invective that the reactionary Right heaped on Madame Curie. Entertaining as all this is, we may note that, by concentrating on the many unfair things that were said about her subject, the biographer relieves herself of the need to defend her subject. Curie really was conspiring to break up the marriage of a woman with four children, even if the mother-in-law told the newspapers there were six. In this case, Dreyfus was guilty.

The First World War obviated these matters. Curie soon won great public credit by designing and organizing the production of mobile X-ray wagons for the Allied field hospitals. Meanwhile, Einstein in Berlin continued to refine General Relativity: this biography makes clear the extent to which relativity was always a work-in-progress for him. Robert Heinlein once cruelly remarked that Einstein was a pacifist until his own ox was gored. In the First World War, that had not happened yet, and Einstein found himself more and more alienated from nationalist colleagues at the university. After the war, he tended to blame both sides equally. He generally sided with the moderate Left and maintained an early skepticism toward the Soviet Union. In later years he hesitated to criticize the USSR, however, having decided it was the chief bulwark against Nazism. Curie, for her part, never doubted that the Allies were wholly in the right, and was comfortable with such conventional initiatives as the League of Nations.

The one type of politics that always engaged the enthusiasm of both Curie and Einstein was ethnic. One of the first two new elements that the Curies isolated was named “polonium” after its co-discover’s homeland. Before Polish independence, Curie supported Polish causes to the extent she could do so without getting other émigrés in trouble; afterward, she was understandably made a national hero, and did what she could to promote Polish science and education. Einstein, for his part, was an early Zionist. After the First World War, his triumphal first trip to the United States was actually a fundraising campaign for Zionist causes. Of course, Einstein being Einstein, he could never quite stay on message: he was quite capable of describing Zionism as an effort to establish a Jewish homeland that would not necessarily be in the Middle East.

Curie made fundraising trips to America, too. The biographer seems rather scandalized that she let herself be taken in hand by one “Missy” Meloney, the editor of The Delineator, one of the major American women’s magazines of the era. This was a pro-family publication which made much of the fact Curie was raising two children. Nonetheless, the magazine saw no reason why Curie’s being a mother meant that she should not have the radium she needed for her institute, so a tour was organized to raise money to buy a gram of it. The gram, or rather the key to the lead-lined box in which the gram was kept, was presented to her by President Harding. A decade later, President Hoover presented her with another. Some people just attract hard-luck presidents, it seems.

Though Einstein and Curie were scientific celebrities during the same decade, and in large part because of their receptions in the United States, there was a difference in how the public viewed them. Neither of the Curies had ever dealt with the press very well, at least until Missy Meloney came along. They gave interviews, but favored one-word answers, and usually let reporters know they would be happy not to see them again. Einstein could be short with the press, too, but he quickly perfected the persona of the Trickster Sage. People wanted to know his opinions about everything. It was one of Einstein’s great strengths as a human being that he resisted the temptation to believe that he was omniscient just because everyone assumed he was. Nonetheless, he produced more than his share of quotable quotes on a wide range of subjects, most of them tactful and none with intent to cause offense. He was politely ironic, at a distance, to Adolf Hitler.

As for Marie Curie, Einstein knew her and liked her, but he remarked in correspondence that she was a grouch. If there are treasuries of the wit and wisdom of Madame Curie, her biographer does not mention them. She gave intelligent answers to intelligent questions about the medical uses of radium. For the most part, though, no one seemed much interested in what she had to say.

Einstein and Curie in later years were notable for their solicitude in helping young scholars get the support they themselves never had. As an academic bureaucrat, Marie Curie in particular was in a position to offer not just recommendations but jobs. Perhaps that is a predicate for biographies like these: you must produce a class of associates willing to talk about you.

A final point: Everyone knows that Einstein’s brain was removed from his body for study. Most of it is still in one jar, but parts have gone missing. From this biography I learned that Einstein’s eyes were taken, too: his ophthalmologist dropped by the morgue at the university hospital in Princeton where Einstein died and asked politely for them. They are now in a closet somewhere in New Jersey. Madame Curie died relatively young of what seems to have been anemia caused by radiation poisoning. You can read her notes at the Bibliotéque nationale if you have a mind, but to see some of the material you must sign a waiver of liability: it’s still “radioactive,” a term she and Pierre coined.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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