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Forced to Choose

et al., Roald Hoffmann


Nobel Prize winner in chemistry; author of, most recently, Old Wine, New Flasks and co-writer (with Carl Djerassi) of the play Oxygen

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.

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