Forced to Choose
Nobel Prize winner in chemistry; author of, most recently,
Old Wine, New Flasks and co-writer (with Carl Djerassi) of the
In a 1993 book (Chemistry Imagined: Reflections on Science)
I write about the time in 1947 when I was 10 years old. We were in a
DP ("displaced persons") camp in Wasseralfingen, then in
the French Occupation Zone of postwar Germany, waiting for a visa to
come to the United States. I read much, and somehow there came my
way two books, biographies of scientists. One was of George
Washington Carver, the black agricultural chemist, the other of
Marie Curie by her daughter Eve. I read both in German translation.
In the story of Carver I was fascinated by the transformations he
wrought with the peanut and the sweet potato. Ink and coffee from
peanuts, rubber and glue from the sweet potato! Perhaps part of the
romance was that I had never seen or tasted either peanuts or sweet potatoes.
My Polish background certainly provided a ground of empathy for
watching Manya Sklodowska transformed into Marie Curie. But Eve
Curie's story touched something deeper. I remember to this day the
scene when Pierre and Marie completed the painstaking isolation of a
tenth of a gram of radium from a ton of crude pitchblende. They put
the children to bed and walked back to their laboratory. I must
quote now, from Vincent Sheean's translation:
. . . "Don't light the lamps!" Marie said in the
darkness. Then she added with a little laugh, "Do you remember
the day when you said to me 'I should like radium to have a
beautiful color'?" The reality was more entrancing than the
simple wish of long ago. Radium had something better than "a
beautiful color": It was spontaneously luminous. And in the
somber shed where . . . the precious particles in their tiny glass
receivers were placed on tables or on shelves nailed to the wall,
their phosphorescent bluish outlines gleamed, suspended in the
night?. Their two faces turned toward the pale glimmering, the
mysterious sources of radiation, toward radium—their radium.
Her body leaning foward, her head eager, Marie took up again the
attitude which had been hers an hour earlier at the bedside of her
sleeping child . . . .
Years have passed. The boy whose interest in science was stirred by
German translations of a story of a black American applied scientist
and a French-Polish woman chemist is older. He rereads these books,
and sees that they are hagiographies. The romance is off the radium.
But Marie Curie still makes him cry.