Pierre Curie Biography (1859-1906)


The name "Curie" is most often associated with Marie Curie, and with good reason. However, her husband Pierre had made a name for himself years before Marie began her epic work, and he assisted in the research that won the couple two Nobel Prizes.

Thinking his introverted son to be a slow learner, Curie's father chose to educate him at home. He proved to be an exceptional student once directed--so much so that he earned his bachelor's degree from the Sorbonne at the age of sixteen. He worked as a laboratory assistant there during his post-graduate studies, which gave him an opportunity to work with his older brother, Jacques.During this time, the two brothers did intense research in crystallography.In 1880, they discovered that certain crystals, such as quartz, would producea small electric current when pressure was applied to them. They called thiseffect piezoelectricity (from a Greek work meaning "to press"). This discovery gained the Curie brothers international notice and earned Pierre an appointment at the Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry, where he taught until 1904.

During the early 1890s, Curie became interested in the effects of temperatureupon magnetism, and he began his doctoral studies in this area; he would eventually formulate a correlation between these properties that is still knownas Curie 's law. While researching at the Sorbonne, he met Marie Sklodowska,a young Polish woman working on her physics degree. They soon fell in love and in July 1895 were married shortly after the completion of Curie's doctoraldissertation.

In 1896 the Curies' mutual colleague Henri Becquerel had discovered the presence of radiation (at that time called Becquerel rays) emanating from samplesof uranium. Marie Curie chose this as the subject of her own dissertation, and for the next six years the husband and wife team conducted exhaustive research to determine the source of this radioactivity, a term Marie Curie coined.Acting as one, the Curies discovered polonium and then radium. For their efforts, the Curies shared the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics with Becquerel. Though proud of his work, Pierre Curie acknowledged the tremendous power contained in radioactive substances and the destructive potential that power held.

In 1904, Curie was given a professorship at the Sorbonne, with his wife as superintendent of his laboratory. Though they finally had scientific freedom and financial stability, their contentment was short-lived. On April 19, 1906,Curie slipped on a rain-slicked street and was crushed under the wheel of a horse-drawn cart. He died instantly. Marie Curie was given her husband's position at the Sorbonne and in 1911 won an unprecedented second Nobel Prize (thistime in chemistry) for the work she and her husband had begun a decade earlier.

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