Marie Curie’s granddaughter speaks at conference on pioneering women

5 March 2015

The granddaughter of Marie Curie addressed a one-day meeting on pioneering women in physics at the Institute of Physics (IOP) on 4 March.

Hélène Langevin-Joliot

Hélène Langevin-Joliot, herself a nuclear physicist who undertook fundamental research until five years ago, was among several speakers to pay tribute to both celebrated and lesser-known female scientists and to examine some issues facing women in physics today.

Langevin-Joliot described Marie Curie’s early struggles to study science and her collaboration with Pierre Curie, whom she married in 1895. “It is difficult to imagine personalities more different: Pierre was as dreamy as Marie was organised, so they complemented each other very well,” she said.

While Pierre was a professor in the school of chemistry and physics at the Sorbonne, Marie was allowed to work there, and to have a woman in the laboratory in that place was a historical event in France, she said. She studied what were known as “uranic rays”, questioning whether these were unique to uranium, and began to check all the elements for the same property.

She also decided to examine minerals such as pitchblende and chalcolite. Upon discovering that these were even more radioactive (a term that she coined) than pure uranium, she realised that an even more radioactive element than uranium must be present. She and Pierre went on to discover polonium, and with two other scientists, radium. For their research into radiation they were jointly awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with Bequerel, though Marie was due to be left off the nomination until Pierre was alerted to the situation.

After Pierre’s death in a street accident in 1906, the university made her director of her own laboratory. She was denied entrance to the French Academy in 1911, but in that year she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In the First World War she created mobile radiography units to examine casualties, and through this work she developed “a combination of self-confidence and diplomacy that would help her to achieve her goals during the rest of her life”, Langevin-Joliot said.

In 1921 she undertook a tour of the US to visit women’s universities and to thank those who had donated money to supply one gram of radium for her laboratory, which had been depleted of funds after the war. She also agreed to become vice-president of the International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations.

Marie Curie’s life “showed science as a human adventure”, Langevin-Joliot said. “There is a comment of hers that I like very much: ‘I have given a great deal of time to science because I wanted to, because I loved research.’ Her scientific achievements opened the way for the following generation of women scientists.”

Among the female scientists celebrated at the event were Lise Meitner (1878-1968), a pioneer of nuclear fission, whose epitaph was “a scientist who never lost her humanity”, Prof. Gerry Lander said in a talk describing her achievements. The audience also heard a description of Edith Stoney (1869-1938) from Prof. Francis Duck, who said she had had little historical prominence but had been a pioneer of medical physics who, with her sister Florence, had set up the first radiological service, situated at the Royal Free Hospital.

Prof. Allan Chapman spoke about the phenomenal intellectual gifts of Mary Somerville (1820-1860), a leading mathematician and astronomer, after whom Somerville College was named, and Kate Crennell talked about prominent women in crystallography whose lives spanned the years 1903 to 2012: Rosalind Franklin, Kathleen Lonsdale, Dorothy Hodgkin, Helen Megaw and Louise Johnson.

Giving an overview of the contribution of female scientists throughout history, IOP Women in Physics Group (WIPG) member Gillian Butcher said the early Greek philosophers believed that a woman’s womb wanders around her body, causing emotional instability and an inability to reason – a view that was expressed even up to the early 20th century, she said. While women such as Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) could write on botany, medicine and cosmology, in later times female alchemists could be accused of witchcraft and in 1620 James 1 made it illegal to do anything considered inappropriate to your gender.

The rise of technology and printing opened up more opportunities for women, and later the burgeoning philosophical societies sometimes attracted large female audiences, she said. Progress had not been linear, however; for example, women’s take-up of doctorates in science actually fell between the 1920s and the 1960s, she noted.

Prof. Gillian Gehring spoke about the first female physics professor in the UK, Prof. Daphne Jackson (1936-91), who became head of the physics department at the University of Surrey at the age of 34. She had published 80 papers on nuclear physics, had been head of quantum physics at Imperial College, and as a “hobby” had set up a scheme to enable female physicists to re-establish their careers after a break. Now called the Daphne Jackson Trust, it had helped more than 250 women to restart their careers, she said. In 1989 Prof. Gehring herself became only the second female physics professor in the UK, and a portrait of her had been unveiled in the Firth Hall at the University of Sheffield on 2 March by Prof. Athene Donald, she said, in order to bring some balance in the gender of role models on display.

The meeting was jointly organised by the IOP’s History of Physics Group and the WIPG, and sponsored by the IOP’s London and South East Branch and the French Embassy. The WIPG’s chair, Heather Williams, concluded the meeting by asking whether there was still a problem for women in physics, and if so, whether it could be fixed.

Williams said entries to GCSE physics were fairly gender balanced, there was a drop-off in participation at A-level, and female physics professors were still rare in the UK. This was partly culturally specific – participation rates varied hugely between countries, she said. Many factors played their part: lack of affordable childcare, progression based on an unbroken track record, job insecurity, the “two-body problem”, and unconscious bias. We also lived in a gendered society where even identical chocolate bars now came in versions branded for girls or for boys, she said, and science was hijacked to claim that male and female brains were wired differently, even though new research showed that the brain was far more plastic than neuroscientists had ever imagined.

Applauding the IOP’s efforts to improve girls’ experience of physics in the classroom, she said everyone had a role to play in countering gender stereotypes, promoting genuine female role models in science, and educating ourselves and others about unconscious bias.