When the romantic relationship between Fred
and Irène became known, cynics claimed that the gregarious prince
consort was wooing the awkward crown princess
of the Radium Institute only to advance his career.
Second Generation of Curies
CURIE'S LAST YEARS were brightened by the flourishing collaboration
between her two lab assistants, her daughter Irène and young Frédéric
Joliot. Just as Marie and Pierre had combined personal love with
professional commitment, so did the Joliot-Curies. Irène and Fred
shared not only a devotion to scientific research but also similar
political outlooks as well as a love of sports.
fame and the achievement of her parents neither discouraged nor
intimidated her....Her sincere love of science, her gifts, inspired
in her only one ambition: to work forever in that laboratory which
she had seen go up.
--Eve Curie on her sister Irène
Like Pierre Curie,
Fred Joliot lacked impeccable academic credentials. But he had graduated
first in his engineering class at the Paris Municipal School of
Industrial Physics and Chemistry, where he studied under Paul Langevin,
the Curies' colleague and Marie's erstwhile love. In 1925 Langevin
helped place Fred at the Radium Institute as a junior assistant
to Marie Curie. By that time Irène, two and a half years Fred's
senior, had been awarded her doctorate for studies of the alpha
rays of polonium (the first of the two elements her mother had discovered
27 years earlier). About a year after Fred's arrival in the lab,
the couple married.
rediscovered in [Pierre Curie's] daughter the same purity,
his good sense, his humility. --Frédéric
THAT THE MARRIAGE WOULD LAST, Marie Curie not only insisted
on a prenuptial agreement but also confirmed that Irène would inherit
the use of the radium at the lab. The young couple struggled to
make ends meet, with Fred doing some teaching on the side. Despite
his many responsibilities, he was able in 1930 to complete his doctorate
on properties of compounds of polonium. For a while his financial
concerns led him to contemplate leaving research for a better-paying
career in industry.
Before 1928, when
they began to sign their scientific articles jointly, Irène and
Fred had each published some solid work as individuals, but neither
had demonstrated outstanding scientific abilities. Together they
brushed greatness twice before striking pay dirt. In 1932 they noted
the unusual result of an experiment they performed, but failed to
understand it completely. That left the discovery of the neutron
to James Chadwick. In another experiment, drawing an incorrect conclusion
about the mysterious outcome, they ceded the discovery of the positron
to C. D. Anderson.
CRITICAL EXPERIMENT in their basement lab at the Radium Institute
led them to a correct and very significant conclusion in mid-January
1934. By bombarding stable elements with nuclear projectiles, they
were the first to discover artificial radioactivity--a normal element
was changed to a radioactive one through human intervention.
|Persistent rumors about the strength of Joliot's
attachment to Irène (shown above at a 1929 conference on beta
and gamma rays held at the Cavendish Laboratory) led him to
announce to an acquaintance, But I do love my wife. I
love her very much.
| Marie Curie, shown here with the Joliot-Curies
and their young children, soon acknowledged her son-in-law's
abilities. The young man, she said, was a skyrocket.
With the neutron we were too
late. With the positron we were too late. Now we are in
time.--Joliot to a student,
© 2000 -
American Institute of Physics
|Joliot in 1939 with fellow scientists Lew
Kowarski and Hans Halban around a cloud chamber, as they began
work on uranium fission. When Joliot told Irène that the cloud
chamber was the most beautiful phenomenon in the world,
now the mother of two children--corrected him: Yes, my
dear, it would be the most beautiful phenomenon in the world--if
it were not for childbirth.
TO THEIR DISCOVERY, artificially radioactive atoms could now
be prepared relatively inexpensively. The tedious labor and high
cost of separating naturally occurring radioactive elements like
radium from their ores would no longer impede the progress of nuclear
physics and medicine. Their discovery brought the pair the 1935
Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
after receiving the Nobel Prize and the fame and obligations that
went with it, Irène and Fred each took on administrative duties and
students. Irène accepted the position of Undersecretary for Scientific
Research in a Socialist-Communist coalition government, but political
maneuvers were not to her taste and she soon returned to the lab.
In 1938 her group did painstaking work on uranium with puzzling results,
which provoked German scientists to research that led to the discovery
of nuclear fission. Fred's group, recognizing a potentially immense
source of energy, began pioneering work on chain reactions. When Germany
invaded France in 1940, his collaborators fled and helped create the
British atomic energy program, leading to the American Manhattan Project.
Fred and Irène decided to remain in their homeland.
results of your researches are of capital importance for pure
science, but in addition, physiologists, doctors, and the whole
of suffering humanity hope to gain from your discoveries remedies
of inestimable value.--1935
Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Irène Joliot-Curie and Frédéric Joliot