SCI-TECH & AGRI

Discoverer of artificial radioactivity

IRENE CURIE was born on September 12, 1897 at Paris, in a family of dedicated research workers. She did not attend school until the age of twelve but in 1907 her mother took charge of her scientific education by sending her to the `teaching co-operative' established by Marie Curie and her friends for their children. Here Marie Curie taught physics; Paul Langevin, mathematics; and Jean Perin, chemistry. This private education lasted till 1909.

Her grandfather Eugene Curie, who was living with the family, exerted a great influence on Irene's personality. He was the source of attachment to the liberal socialism to which she remained faithful all her life.

She next went to College Sevigne where she received a Bachelor's degree in 1914. She then attended the Sorbonne university (1914-1920) and obtained the `licence' in physics and mathematics.

During World War I, she served for many months as an army nurse and assisted her mother in installing the equipment for the radiography of the wounded.

In 1918, Irene Curie took up the post of an assistant at the Radium Institute headed by her mother. She began research in classical radioactivity; she conducted a series of studies on the fluctuations in the range of alpha rays. She determined these variations by photographing the tracks that the rays formed in a Wilson cloud chamber. These results were presented in her doctoral thesis in 1925.

Irene married Fredric Joliot in October in the year 1926. From 1931, their collaboration lasted for several years and won for them the prestigious Nobel Prize. In their Nobel lectures, Fredric, the physicist, dealt with the chemical identification of the artificially created radio isotopes; Irene, the chemist, elaborated on the discovery of a new type of radioactivity, namely the positive beta decay. Marie Curie, who died in July 1934, was not destined to witness the triumph of her daughter and son-in-law.

Irene Joliet-Curie was elected Professor at the Sorbonne in 1937. She, however, continued to work at the Radium Institute of which she became the Director in 1946.

It was during these years that Irene did her most valuable individual work. With her specialised knowledge of radiochemistry, she sought to analyse the complex phenomena that result from bombarding uranium with neutrons.

Otto Hahn and Lise Mietner subsequently repeated these experiments. They proved that a neutron could induce the bipartition of a uranium atom into two atoms of a comparable mass, which was soon afterward termed `fission'. Irene had thus instigated this celebrated discovery.

From 1946 to 1950 she and her husband were Directors of the French Atomic Energy Commission. Although devoted to science, she loved French and English literature. She found great joy in motherhood and devoted much time to rear her children till adolescence.

She was an inadequately protected nurse during her service earlier in the army and then in the laboratory, when the dangers of radioactivity were not fully realised. She died at the age of 59 (March 17, 1956) a victim, like her mother, of acute leukaemia. Source: The Dictionary of Scientific Biography)

R. Parthasarathy

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