Friday, May 15, 2009

Without seeing you

‘My Pierre, I think of you without end, my head is bursting with it and my reason is troubled. I do not understand that I am to live henceforth without seeing you, without smiling at the sweet companion of my life.’ These are some of the heart-rending words Marie Curie wrote in a diary after the death of her husband, Pierre Curie, with whom she had won the Nobel Prize for Physics three years earlier. Pierre, born one and a half centuries ago today, also kept a diary, at least when he was a young man.

Pierre Curie was born in Paris - 150 years ago today on 15 May 1859 - and educated at home by his father. Although he showed a strong aptitude for mathematics, lack of funds led him to take a laboratory job, in the Sorbonne faculty of sciences, rather than to full time study. As early as 1880, though, he and his older brother, Jacques, showed how an electric potential could be generated when crystals were compressed (piezoelectricity). By 1882, he had been put in charge of all practical work within the Sorbonne’s physics and industrial chemistry schools, but it wasn’t until 1895 that he obtained his doctorate - based on pioneering studies of magnetism - and was appointed Professor of Physics.

That same year, Curie married Marie Sklodowska, a Polish student of his, and they would have two daughters, Irène and Ève. Collaborating, Pierre and Marie were the first to isolate radioactive substances - radium and polonium - by fractionation of pitchblende in 1898; and they were the first to coin the term ‘radioactive’. Their research formed the basis for many subsequent developments in nuclear physics and chemistry. Together, and jointly with French physicist Henri Becquerel, they were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903.

In April 1906, Pierre died after his skull was fractured when he fell under the wheel of a horse-drawn vehicle on a rainy night. Further information on Pierre and Marie can be found at Wikipedia, on the Nobel Prize website, and at the American Institute of Physics.

The death of Pierre was a terrible tragedy for Marie. We know a lot about her feelings at the time because soon after her husband’s death she started writing a diary, the only one she ever kept. Years later, her daughter used some quotes from it for a much celebrated biography of her mother. The full text of Madame Curie - A Biography by Eve Curie, as translated by Vincent Sheean and published by Doubleday & Company in 1937, is available at Internet Archive. Some extracts of the diary (taken from Eve’s book) are also available on the website of the American Institute of Physics.

Here is how Eve introduces her mother’s diary: ‘After some weeks had passed, Marie, incapable of speaking of her woe before human beings, lost in a silence, a desert which sometimes made her cry out with horror, was to open a gray notebook and hurl onto the paper, with writing which trembled, the thoughts that were stifling her. Through these scratchy, tear-splotched pages, of which only fragments can be published, she addressed Pierre, called upon him and asked him questions. She tried to fix every detail of the drama which had separated them in order to torture herself with it forever afterward. The brief, intimate diary the first and the only one Marie ever kept reflected the most tragic hours of this woman’s life.’

And here are some extracts about Pierre.

‘We put you into the coffin Saturday morning, and I held your head up for this move. We kissed your cold face for the last time. Then a few periwinkles from the garden on the coffin and the little picture of me that you called “the good little student” and that you loved. It is the picture that must go with you into the grave, the picture of her who had the happiness of pleasing you enough so that you did not hesitate to offer to share your life with her, even when you had seen her only a few times. You often told me that this was the only occasion in your life when you acted without hesitation, with the absolute conviction that you were doing well. My Pierre, I think you were not wrong. We were made to live together, and our union had to be.

Your coffin was closed and I could see you no more. I didn’t allow them to cover it with the horrible black cloth. I covered it with flowers and I sat beside it. . .

They came to get you, a sad company; I looked at them, and did not speak to them. We took you back to Sceaux, and we saw you go down into the big deep hole. Then the dreadful procession of people. They wanted to take us away. Jacques and I resisted. We wanted to see everything to the end. They filled the grave and put sheaves of flowers on it. Everything is over, Pierre is sleeping his last sleep beneath the earth; it is the end of everything, everything, everything. . .’

7 May 1906
‘My Pierre, I think of you without end, my head is bursting with it and my reason is troubled. I do not understand that I am to live henceforth without seeing you, without smiling at the sweet companion of my life.’

11 May 1906
‘My Pierre, I got up after having slept rather well, relatively calm. That was only a quarter of an hour ago, and now I want to howl again - like a wild beast.’

14 May 1906
‘My little Pierre, I want to tell you that the laburnum is in flower, the wisteria, the hawthorn and the iris are beginning - you would have loved all that. I want to tell you, too, that I have been named to your chair, and that there have been some imbeciles to congratulate me on it. I want to tell you that I no longer love the sun or the flowers. The sight of them makes me suffer. I feel better on dark days like the day of your death, and if I have not learned to hate fine weather it is because my children have need of it.’

There is some evidence of Pierre Curie having written a diary as a young man, but I can find (on the internet) only three extracts. The first two are from Eve Curie’s book, as above, and the last, brief one is from the Institut Curie website.

‘Woman loves life for the living of it far more than we do: women of genius are rare. Thus, when we, driven by some mystic love, wish to enter upon some anti-natural path, when we give all our thoughts to some work which estranges us from the humanity nearest us, we have to struggle against women. The mother wants the love of her child above all things, even if it should make an imbecile of him. The mistress also wishes to possess her lover, and would find it quite natural to sacrifice the rarest genius in the world for an hour of love. The struggle almost always is unequal, for women have the good side of it: it is in the name of life and nature that they try to bring us back.’

‘What shall I be later on? I am very rarely all under command at once; ordinarily a portion of my being is asleep. It seems to me that my mind gets clumsier every day. Before, I flung myself into scientific or other divagations; today I barely touch on subjects and do not allow myself to be absorbed by them any more. And I have so many, many things to do! Is my poor mind then so feeble that it cannot act upon my body? Is thought itself unable to move my poor mind? Then it is worth very little! And Pride, Ambition couldn’t they at least propel me, or will they let me live like this ? In my imagination I shall find most confidence to pull myself out of the rut. Imagination may perhaps entice my mind and carry it away. But I am very much afraid that imagination, too, may be dead . . .’

‘Life should be made into a dream and a dream into a reality.’

No comments: