Why Is Marie Curie’s Century-old Notebook Kept in Lead-lined Boxes?


Short Bytes: Most of you probably don’t know that Marie Curie was exposed to the radiation levels so powerful that her notebooks are now kept in lead-lined boxes. Read the whole “radioactive” story here!

Marie Curie and her collaborator/husband Pierre Curie’s death following their discovery of radium and their subsequent contributions to radioactivity, which was relatively an oblivious and a new subject then, was phenomenal in a certain sense; owing to the consequences of the ailments rendered by radioactivity. Unlike the usual norms, the papers and manuscripts of Marie Curie’s works, sealed in a lead box, must be viewed in a protective clothing and environment; only after signing a waiver of liability in France’ s Bibliotheque National.

The reason for this, as many of us are aware, is that all of Marie Curie’s stuff- which include furniture, papers and even her cookbooks – have been radioactive for more than 100 years now. Supposedly, the Curie’s carried bottles of radium and polonium in their coat pockets and stored them in a drawer in their study.

As the historian and author of the book “The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914”- Phillipp Blom quotes Marie Curie’s autobiographical notes describing mysterious blue-green lights in her lab:

One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products. It was really a lovely sight and one always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights.

The discovery that the tubes not only stimulated the senses of the room, but also electrified the air around, led Pierre Curie to construct a room containing an electrometer which could sense weak electric current. The tubes containing the luminous material would then be brought into the environment caused the air to get polarized into positive and negative ions, creating an electric field and hence, an electric current. This strange phenomenon was then named “radioactivity”, through which the possibility of the existence of smaller particles than atoms (then thought to be the smallest particles) arose. This possibility would then pave a way to a new subject called particle physics as we know now.

Also read: Boeing Patents Laser and Nuclear Fusion Powered Jet Engine

Naturally, it was presumed that such a powerful phenomenon had to be beneficial in some way. In 1903, Pierre Curie after observing burns on his arm left by a chunk of radium he tied for 10 hours, proposed that radioactivity could cure cancer. This was monumental, as manufacturers of everything from toothpaste to laxatives produced products that contained a little too much of radioactive thorium. Radium bath salts were claimed to treat insomnia. Revigorator pots- ceramic drinking vessels lined with radon and uranium – were prescribed for flatulence among others.

This had continued until 1938, when the Food, Drug and Cosmetic act banned all radioactive consumer products. It was too late for socialite and industrialist Eben Byers, who had to be buried in a lead-lined coffin as he tried to treat his injured arm with 1400 bottles of radium infused water.

But today is an another story- thanks to the Curies, we understand radioactivity better. We now find the application of radioactivity in medicine and nuclear power, and more particularly in radioactive dating, where radioactive substances are known to determine the age of fossils and other objects. Radioactivity is also applied in smoke detectors.

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Veda Thipparthi

Veda Thipparthi

Geeky comic girl with an edge. Besides, music worshipper, pokemon trainer, pencil sketcher, ball pen doodler, writer, baker, high fantasy novel reader - over all, a self obsessed polyhistor.
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