The Genius of Marie Curie: The Woman Who Lit Up the World; Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble

The Genius of Marie Curie: The Woman Who Lit Up the World is part of a loosely linked series of programmes that each examine the life & work of a pivotal figure in Western history of the last couple of centuries or so with an emphasis on science or invention. We’ve watched the Newton one recently (post) and the Turner one last week (post) and on Monday we watched the one about Marie Curie. And it was interesting, a look at both her life and the work that made her famous. But my enjoyment of it was tainted by the way they chose to frame it.

For the Newton programme the opening segment talked about how he wasn’t just interested in things we’d think of as scientific today, he also worked for several years on alchemical experiments and developed his own theological understanding of Christianity. For the Turner programme the opening segment talked about how he’d lived through the Industrial Revolution and painted works that were of that time – they talked about his painting of the Temeraire being towed by a steam tug to be broken up and how that symbolised so much about the age. So the focus in both is on the achievements of the man in question – intellectual or artistic.

For the Marie Curie programme it started off well enough – the opening segment runs through her achievements (2 Nobel Prizes, a woman who succeeded in a man’s world, someone who refused to conform to societal expectations etc). But then the voiceover said something akin* to “In every great life there’s a pivotal moment and the reaction to that is what comes to define their life”. And this moment that they chose to present as “defining” was the discovery of her relationship with a married man by the press & the resulting scandal. Rather than, say, her Nobel Prizes. Or if you’re after a human interest angle what about her work driving a mobile X-ray unit during the First World War, which they suggested later in the programme was what lead to her death. But no, they’d rather frame it as a woman who had a scandalous love affair (while doing science on the side). Gah.

*We’ve deleted the programme already so I can’t check the exact wording.

I hadn’t even heard of that before, I know of her as “Polish woman who discovered radium, married Pierre Curie, eventually died from radiation related disease” – so I don’t see that relationship as something that’s permeated into the zeitgeist as defining. Gah.

To be completely fair, they did later in the programme make the point themselves that the press & public interest was because she was a woman, and that this was sexist. Einstein had affairs & no-one talked about them instead of his physics, why should it be different for Curie. But that doesn’t let the programme off the hook for centring this scandal, and presenting it as at least as important as her work (if not more so).

Two other irritations before I talk about the interesting bits. Firstly, every time they showed us a photograph they did this jerky pan across & around it which was intensely distracting. And secondly, the soundtrack was very obtrusive and the choice of songs not nearly as funny as they thought it was.

So. Despite my irritation with the programme on a philosophical level and on a technical level it was still interesting. What I knew about Marie Curie before was fairly bare bones & it was nice to get that fleshed out a bit (even despite the above). She was born Maria Skłodowska in Poland and grew up in Warsaw during a period where it was ruled by the Russians. At that time there were supposed to be no schools or universities in Polish, no Polish music or dancing – basically the Russians were trying to wipe out Polish culture. Her mother died when Maria was 12, from tuberculosis. Her father was a teacher of physics & maths, and he taught his children these subjects. Maria and her elder sister Bronisława made plans to move to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. They had to move because the Russian run universities in Warsaw at the time would not admit women, whereas the Sorbonne did. The scheme was that Maria would work as a governess in Poland to earn money to support her sister at university, then once her sister was established Maria would move to France & her sister would support her at the Sorbonne. While working as a governess Maria fell in love with the eldest son of the family (not one of her charges) but his parents wouldn’t agree to the match because she wasn’t a suitable class of person – he was unwilling to go against his parents’ wishes and this rejection sent Maria into a depression.

She had at first given up the dream of studying at the Sorbonne, but she enrolled at the illicit “floating university” in Warsaw and studied chemistry (and other subjects?) there. This was a Polish run, Polish language, university and was forbidden by the Russian rulers – and they would teach any Pole who wanted to learn whether male or female. This rekindled her interest and she went on to join her sister in Paris. She excelled in her studies, graduating first in her class. And then she went to work in the lab of a man named Pierre Curie. Her first studies were on magnets – this was relatively lucrative work, because there were commercial interests that would pay for the development of new alloys to make better magnets for better electrical generators. Over time she & Pierre fell in love, and when the homesick Maria talked about returning to Poland he talked about following her there. However in the end they married & remained in Paris (I can’t remember if the programme said why – wikipedia suggests that Warsaw University wouldn’t have her as a PhD student because she was a woman, whereas she could do research in France).

Marie Curie started to work on radioactive materials not long after the initial serendipitous discovery of the phenomenon by Becquerel. She developed (and with Pierre’s help built) apparatus to measure the radioactive rays coming off a sample, and analysed a large number of different substances which was painstaking & tedious work. One sample, pitchblende (a uranium containing mineral), was more radioactive than anything she’d previous analysed including uranium itself. So she theorised that there must be some new element present – and set out to isolate it. This was a mammoth task, as the element was only present in trace amounts. They had some footage of her stirring a great vat of what I think was pitchblende & nitric acid. Eventually she and Pierre isolated and purified their new element – Radium. So called because it glows.

During this time period the Curies had two children. Marie Curie was more interested in her work than her children and they were mostly brought up by her father-in-law. This caused a rift in the family, although Curie and her eldest daughter reconciled by the time she grew up. Curie & her younger daughter didn’t reconcile until Curie was dying many years later. Both Marie & Pierre Curie suffered increasingly from ill health during this time – the effect of their work with radioactivity. Pierre tragically died – not as a direct result of his ill health, which I hadn’t realised. He was actually run over by a horse & carriage, the implication was that if he’d been in better health he might’ve got out of the way.

Curie’s first Nobel Prize was in 1903 for Physics – originally this had only been intended for Becquerel & Pierre Curie but Pierre complained and insisted that Marie’s name should be on the award too otherwise he wouldn’t accept it (good man!). The second one came in 1911, 5 years after Pierre’s death, in Chemistry. This came at the same sort of time as the scandal of her relationship with a married man broke – and the Nobel committee made noises about how if they’d known she was that sort of woman then they wouldn’t’ve given her the prize. Her displeasure with this broke her out of the depression she’d fallen into after the scandal and the end of the relationship*. (The man in question kind of didn’t quite fight a duel to restore his honour, and came away reputation intact, somehow *eye roll*)

*The programme spent more time on this, but I’m irritated by that so I’ve skipped the details here.

In the First World War Curie read that shortage of X-ray machines meant that the French army was losing soldiers who might’ve been saved – and she designed a mobile X-ray unit and drove one (of several?) herself. She and her elder daughter operated this unit for most of the war. There was still no idea at the time that X-rays or radioactivity were dangerous, so Curie didn’t have any protection from the X-ray machine. The programme later said that this is now thought to’ve lead to the aplastic anaemia that killed her (her body wasn’t radioactive enough for it to’ve been the radium).

After the war Curie continued with her work on radium, founding an institute for investigating the element. She was a respected scientist, attending invite-only conferences with other prominent physicists (like Einstein). And was the only one of them to have two Nobel Prizes in two different disciplines – an achievement that is still unique. Despite all this she still had difficulty securing funds for her research & at one point didn’t even have enough radium for her work to continue. This came to the notice of an American journalist (Marie Mattingly Meloney) who had written articles about her, and who organised a fundraising drive throughout the USA to buy Curie’s Institute a gram of radium. When the money was raised Curie visited the US and toured the country giving many lectures before being presented with the radium by the President in a White House ceremony.

Curie eventually died of aplastic anaemia, caused by exposure to radiation or X-rays, and was buried with her husband. In 1995 their bodies were exhumed (hence knowing how radioactive she was) and re-buried with a full state funeral in the Panthéon in Paris – she’s the first (and only) woman to be buried there because of her own achievements.

So, an interesting but flawed programme. But I did at least learn more about Marie Curie and her work.

Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble is a new series about sheep farming. The hook for it is that Humble owns and lives on a sheep farm in Wales, and for this series she’s visiting sheep farmers in other countries. I think the three episodes will also roughly speaking cover past, present & future (the intro segment hinted at that) but I won’t know that for sure till I’ve seen them all!

This first episode was set in a very remote village in Afghanistan where they still farm in traditional ways dating back thousands of years. The people Humble visited live in the Wakhan Corridor which is part of Afghanistan due to European colonialism. To the north of this narrow strip of land is Tajikistan, once part of the Russian Empire, to the south Pakistan, once part of the British Empire. The Russians and British didn’t want their Empires to meet, so the borders are drawn so that a finger projects from the east of Afghanistan to separate the two countries. The programme opened with Humble travelling through Kabul (the most dangerous part of the whole trip) because this was the only place they could fly to the Wakhan Corridor from. After flying for 250 miles across the mountains they landed in the valley where the Wakhi people live in winter. During the summer months (Humble arrived towards the end of summer) half the population live here, and grow wheat & barley. The other half travel over the nearby mountains to a plateau called the Great Pamir where they graze their flocks of sheep.

After walking to the plateau, with the help of some locals & their yaks to transport their gear, Humble & her camera crew stayed in a couple of different villages to see how these shepherds live. In the first one they were made welcome immediately & encouraged to film whatever they wanted. Here Humble saw the everyday life of the shepherds – a routine of driving the sheep out to graze, bringing them back to be milked in the middle of the day and then at night to protect them from predators. The grazing here is better than in the home valley, and there’s not the space to both grow crops and graze sheep, so the increased risk of predators is worth it. Humble pointed out how the sheep didn’t look like her sheep in Wales – they have much bigger bottoms where they store fat for the winter ahead. They’re also tamer as they’re milked every day, unlike Humble’s sheep which are grown for meat and so not handled by people often. She also seemed envious of their good health, despite the harsh conditions – there are diseases sheep get in the damp climate of Britain that they don’t get in places like Afghanistan which are drier & more like where sheep evolved.

After a bit of time in this first village Humble moved on to another village, because she wanted to film the migrations that these people do as winter starts drawing in – they move progressively down the valley away from the winter. The first village was already quite low (relatively, a mere 4000 feet above sea level …), so they had to go elsewhere to film. This second village weren’t so keen to have foreigners come in & film, and negotiations were protracted. At first a faction among the men were refusing any access, but the women encouraged Humble to sneak a camera in & film them cooking food. The next day the overall chief turned up from the other half of their village (the wheat growing half) to supervise the impending move & he was happy for them to film & quashed the refusals.

Through the whole of the programme Humble showed us how these people lived, and how hard their life is. She talked in particular to one woman who listed the people in her family who had died – two brothers, two sister, her husband, and of her seven children only one was still alive. An appalling list of grief. Their diet is very basic, and mostly the stuff they produce themselves – bread and (buttery) tea for everyday. A sort of flour & butter porridge for more special occasions. And every once in a while they’ll eat meat – one sheep will be spread around the whole village (50 people or so in the second village). A lot of babies die – 1 in 5 before they’re one year old. Half of all the under-twos are malnourished. For the little that they don’t produce themselves they need to buy – and the only way they have of earning money is to sell off a yak. Humble filmed some traders who’d walked up the the Great Pamir to buy yaks, they said they came to the area because they would get good animals and a cheaper price than anywhere else. But while they were talking about how hard this subsistence farming is they were also talking about how they’re glad they’re not closer civilisation and to the war.

I like Kate Humble’s programmes – we saw the ones she did about the Frankincense Trail and the Spice Trail a few years ago. She’s got a knack of not ever making it seem like “look at these funny foreign people”. In fact in this one the sympathies of the narrative (so’s to speak) were clearly with the Wakhi people as they were vastly entertained by how this grown woman didn’t know how to do any of the basic necessities of life. One woman was consumed with laughter as Humble tried to milk a sheep – “what’s she doing? she’s just tickling it!”. Another got Humble to help her churn butter and then could barely believe how she wasn’t strong enough to really help out.

In Our Time: Water

Water is all around us, and so we tend to think of it as normal and perhaps even boring. This In Our Time episode was about the many ways in which water is unusual and interesting. The experts discussing it were Hasok Chang (University of Cambridge), Andrea Sella (University College London) and Patricia Hunt (Imperial College London).

(This is the second time in a week we’ve listened/watched something about water – the fifth episode of Wonders of Life (post) also spent some time discussing water and it’s uniqueness and importance for life.)

They started out with a bit of historical context – before the late 18th Century water was thought of as an element, not as a substance that was made up of other elements. Antoine Lavoisier was the first person to discover that water is made up of hydrogen & oxygen and he is the person who named those elements. Something I didn’t know but that seems obvious now it’s pointed out, is that the word hydrogen means water-maker and is so named because combining it with oxygen makes water. It took a while for this to be accepted by the scientific community as a whole, and took until the mid-19th Century before the proportions of the two elements were known. But it’s now a matter of common knowledge that water is H2O, two hydrogens and one oxygen atom per molecule.

Hunt told us about how that’s right but not the whole story. Each oxygen atom in water bonds to four hydrogens – two with short covalent bonds, and two with longer hydrogen bonds. The short covalent bonds are the bonds that require a chemical reaction and input of energy to break, and these are the two hydrogens that are part of the water molecule per se. Hydrogen bonds form because the water molecule is polarised, Hunt was describing it as the triangle of the water molecule (sitting with the hydrogens at the base and the oxygen at the apex) has two little bunny ears sticking up which are perpendicular to the plane of the hydrogen atoms. So the oxygen is inside a tetrahedral environment with a hydrogen at each of two of the corners of the tetrahedron, and (effectively) an electron at each of the other two. These bunny ears (which are slightly negatively charged) interact with hydrogens on other water molecules (which are slight positively charged. Chang said that in cruder terms this means that the water molecules are “sticky”. Hydrogen bonds are longer than covalent bonds and don’t need a chemical reaction or large amounts of energy to break – Hunt said that they flick on & off every picosecond (which is 10-12 seconds). When pushed she said that that’s not directly observable, but that you do experiments to do with femtosecond (10-15 seconds) bursts of lasers and do calculations involving quantum mechanics to indirectly observe this (this is her area of expertise) and this is the best hypothesis about what’s going on.

They spent a while talking about the properties of water that are unusual. For instance, ice floats on water. We just take this for granted but it’s a unique property – most solids sink beneath the liquid form of the substance. Sella gave olive oil as an example, if you look in the supermarket on a cold day then you see cloudy solid olive oil at the bottoms of the bottles. Water is densest at 4°C while it is still a liquid, and this has to do with how the hydrogen bonds between the molecules push them apart in the solid (I think).

Water is also unique in how high a temperature it freezes & boils, if you compare it to other similar molecules. They used H2S and NH3 as examples of similar molecules that are gases long before water even liquefies. This again has to do with the hydrogen bonds, these hold the water molecules together when otherwise they might drift apart. Chang explained that in the 18th Century there was a certain amount of confusion about what precisely the boiling point of water is, and it turns out that this is justified. Boiling starts with the formation of bubbles of gaseous water which rise to the surface. The surface tension of water (due again to hydrogen bonds) means that it’s very hard or impossible for a bubble to start from nothing. So if the surface of the vessel is very smooth (like a ceramic mug) then the water can be heated past 100°C before it boils – this is called superheated water. He said that in a normal mug you might get to 102°C or 103°C. I followed a link from the In Our Time programme page to some research Chang has done on this – I was particularly struck by his sixth experiment where using degassed water he found that the water gets to a temperature of 108°C without boiling, and then explodes.

Water is a very good solvent. For small ionic compounds (say, salt – NaCl) this is down to the charges on the ions of the compound that’s being dissolved. The positive ones (Na) interact with the oxygen atoms, and the negative ones (Cl) interact with the hydrogen atoms. The way that the hydrogen bonds between different water molecules make the water form a lattice like structure also helps to dissolve some non-ionic compounds. If the molecule is small enough it will fit in the gaps in the lattice, as if it’s in a cage. Hunt then talked about how this makes water very important in life. Partly because it can carry nutrients around the body (in the bloodstream of an animal, in the xylem or phloem of a plant). Water is also an important part of cellular biochemistry. It is the solvent in which the chemistry takes place, and is also involved in helping some of the components of this chemistry (proteins) to fold up into the right shapes. The way water and some things don’t mix (oils, lipids) is how cell membranes work – if you think of oil droplets floating on water then you can see how they could be formed into a shell around a compartment of water.

They also talked a little bit about how there are more sorts of ice than you might expect. At least 15. Ice I is the one that we normally see, and in it all the oxygen atoms are aligned like oranges stacked up in a supermarket. But the orientation of the water molecules is random – so which direction the short covalent bonded hydrogens are in differs randomly between the molecules. If you do things with temperature & pressure to the ice then you get different forms of ice – the oxygens will still be organised the same as Ice I, but the orientation of the water molecules will be ordered in some way or another. For instance all the short covalently bonded hydrogens might be on the same side of each molecule and lined up in rows.

The take home message was that water is much more interesting than one might think, and that chemists are still finding out new things about it. Sella finished up the programme by telling us about one question that’s got the potential to have an impact on everyday life – why is ice so slippery? Apparently the full chemistry & physics behind this isn’t yet known.

Wonders of Life; Brazil with Michael Palin

Well, Brian Cox’s Wonders of Life series really didn’t start how I expected it to do. I suppose in retrospect it should’ve been obvious that a physicist would talk about the physics & chemistry of life rather than the biology! This first episode was asking the question “What is life?”. He made a brief detour to mention that this question is typically answered by reference to a soul or other supernatural cause, but then started to talk about the laws of physics and how life exists as a result of the ways these laws work (in the same way that a star exists because of how the laws of physics work).

Life probably got started in hydrothermic vents in the ocean – which are alkaline environments. The ocean of the time (3.5 or 4 billion years ago, or so) was slightly acidic, so there was a proton gradient set up between the alkaline waters of the vent & the acidic waters around about it. The protons moving along this gradient releases energy. This is the same mechanism by which batteries work – in this case the heat of the earth’s core drives the setting up of the gradient, and because of the first law of thermodynamics (conservation of energy) all of this energy must be released when the protons move down the gradient. The hydrothermic vents are also rich in organic molecules, and the energy drives the chemical reactions between these molecules. And the first life arises from that chemistry. All life uses proton gradients to get its energy – he showed us pictures of mitochondria from a variety of animals, but the same is also true of prokaryotes (which have no mitochondria).

At first glance life violates the second law of thermodynamics – that the universe tends towards disorder. Living things are obviously complex and over the last few billion years they’ve got more rather than less complex. I never quite follow this argument (physics really isn’t my thing) but I think what it boils down to is that whilst an organism is more complex it’s achieved that in a way that disorders its surroundings more than they would otherwise be. So yes living organisms are localised pockets of complexity but the universe as a whole is still more disordered than before.

He then moved on to talk about how come life isn’t still just chemical soup in rocks. And what keeps organisms the same as their parent organisms. The answer is DNA – the instruction set for making an organism. I was much amused by his DNA precipitation experiment – take cheek cells, add detergent, salt and alcohol, and hey presto! you have white strands of precipitated DNA in the alcohol layer in your test tube. That’s pretty much the basis of a lot of molecular biology labwork – only you don’t use fairy liquid or vodka. He then ran through the basic high level structure of DNA and talked about how it codes for proteins. And then proteins are both the building blocks & machinery of cells and organisms. The great thing about DNA as a molecule to store the instructions is how stable it is – he quoted 1 error per billion bases (I think) when duplicating DNA which is a pretty low error rate. And relatively small differences in the instruction set are enough to generate very different organisms – he pointed out we’re only 1% different from chimpanzees, 1.6% different from gorillas etc.

The second episode was all about senses. After a bit of scene setting he talked about paramecium, which are single celled organisms that swim about using wee hairs (cilia) in their cell membrane. When it bumps into something in the water the little hairs reverse direction and it moves away again. It does this using proton gradients – normally there’s a difference between inside & outside the cell, and when the paramecium touches something the membrane deforms & this opens channels in the membrane and the proton gradient equalises. The energy generated by this is used to switch the direction of the cilia and to open more channels (I think) which means the change in direction propagates right round the cell. This is the basis of how all our senses transmit the information back to the brain – this is how nerve cells work.

Cox then spent a bit of time talking about how different animals have different senses (and different dominant senses). Different species therefore sense the world differently to us – our dependence on sight & hearing, and our ranges of sight & hearing, aren’t some objective way of detecting the world. Like all other animals we have the senses that we need for our evolutionary niche. In this bit I was particularly amused by the footage from some experiments on frogs – if a small rectangle is move past a frog in a horizontal orientation it goes nuts trying reach it & eat it. If the same thing is moved past in a vertical orientation, the frog doesn’t even seem to see it. When it looks like a worm, then it’s detected, when it doesn’t look like lunch it’s not worth wasting energy paying attention to.

He then talked about human hearing while sat on a boat near some alligators. The point of the segment was that despite the little bones in our ears looking like they’re designed for the purpose, actually they’re re-purposed gill arches. And part way through this long process of re-purposing the bones are the reptiles, whose jaw bones are also re-purposed gill arches. So the alligators were illustration …I still wouldn’t’ve got that close to them myself!

And obviously he talked about sight. Rhodopsin, a pigment that reacts to light, has been around in organisms for a long time – way back to cyanobacteria which have existed for a couple of billion years. And Cox demonstrated how simple a basic eye actually is – even a “camera eye” like ours (retina which does basic light detection, some sort of case with a hole in in front, then a lens in the hole. Obviously the devil is in the details, but one thing Cox didn’t mention explicitly is that eyes are believed to have independently evolved several times (the figure I remember is at least 40 times, but I don’t know if that’s right). He then went diving to see an octopus in its natural environment – which is another animal with a camera eye like ours (and it evolved independently). Octopuses are pretty intelligent, and Cox speculates that perhaps intelligence is driven by the need to process the complex images that our sophisticated eyes produce. I’m not sure what I think of that, in the same programme Cox also showed us a mantis shrimp that sees more colours and detects distance more precisely than people – but there was no talk about them being particularly intelligent.

As I said, not quite what I expected from the name of this series, but that makes it more interesting I think 🙂

We also started watching a series about Brazil with Michael Palin. I tend to be a bit wary of travelogues like this – sometimes the bits where the presenter joins in can cross the line between funny & cringe-making for me. Palin normally stays about on the right side of the line, but only just. But it’s still interesting to see the places & people.

The first episode was about the north-east of the country & was titled “Out of Africa”. A lot of people in this region have African ancestry – a lot of the slaves brought from Africa to the Americas ended up in Brazil. Palin quoted a statistic of 40%, and said this was more than ended up in the USA, which I was startled by. This has noticeable influences on the art & culture of the region – one notable example is the religion of Candomble which mixes African and Christian elements.

Palin visited a few different places in the region & a variety of different sorts of groups & events. The ones that particularly stick in my mind were the cowboys who were participating a race to catch bulls. And the national park that consists of a region of sand dunes that are blown miles inland to an area with heavy enough rainfall that there are lakes in the middle of the dunes – which looks pretty surreal.