Following in Marie Curie's footsteps

19 Dec 2011

Marking the centenary of her Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Dr Serge Plattard recently presented a lecture on 'The three lives of Marie Curie'. Here we meet them both

What does your current job involve?
My job at the French Embassy in London as science and technology counsellor is three-fold. Firstly, to gather information on the policy, key issues and plans for the future, in all areas of science, technology, higher education and the environment in the UK and secondly, to promote continued co-operation between French and British laboratories, particularly in areas where each country has a kernel of knowledge and experience.

There is added value in working together and sharing funding. Finally, we promote excellent French research to the learned UK public, organising conferences with societies and universities, and outreach programmes in schools.

What motivated you into postgraduate studies and a career in science?
I wanted to achieve something in science. Having majored in physics, I started working on nuclear reactor physics, but then wanted to do more fundamental work. I accepted a chance to work in nuclear physics, and wrote my thesis on that, then continued working on heavy nuclear isotopes and trying to understand the properties of fission and go back to the fundamental properties of nuclear matter - how it behaves when stretched.

That was what guided me. I was also interested in nuclear astrophysics, especially how stars burn and die. So this was a way for me to go back to the stars, via nuclear physics.

What is the future for modern nuclear physics?
The time for traditional nuclear physics is over. Today, nuclear physics is producing new short-lived elements and exploring elements that might be stable, but have different quantities of protons and neutrons that we see today in radioactive elements.

We are learning about deformed nuclei, or very heavy nuclei, which might behave differently. Another challenge is to understand how nuclear matter behaves when heavily compressed, for instance, through heavy ion collisions.

What are the prospects for such funding given the current global economic situation?
Funding is even more challenging. Today's money in physics is put in large, high-energy instruments, in intense sources of several kinds, in large telescopes, physics in space putting satellites in orbit, and probes into the solar system; also in ocean research, and its relation to the environment. So nuclear physics receives far less funding, as much has been done, and it's not such a booming field today, and doesn't attract the funding that it once did.

What have been the key milestones of your career?
The people I've met. My teachers at high school were very important to me - their teaching convinced me that I should go into science. Also the fascinating people I've met in labs, conferences, living abroad, and embracing a career in scientific diplomacy, working with scientists and politicians around the world. Other milestones are places I've visited, which have impressive technology.

When I was young I went to MIT and Cape Kennedy, and was very impressed by both; I visited major facilities that really amazed me and played a key role in the decisions in my career. The fact that I've contributed a tiny bit to some understanding of the fission phenomenon was very important for me.

Another milestone has been teaching; I was offered the opportunity to teach at post- graduate level at Orsay, and enjoyed it immensely.

In your opinion, what was Marie Curie's greatest achievement?
There were several. Firstly, her boldness to state that radioactivity (a term she coined) came from the atom itself; to state that it wasn't a chemical reaction, but something coming from inside. That was very impressive.

Secondly was her tenacity to get the measurable quantity of radium; she did whatever it took; a wonderful example of stubbornness, willingness and rigour. Thirdly, at the start of her career; she went to Paris to study physics and maths, and conduct research, and stuck to that plan, no matter how hard it was. This is an admirable example for today's young generation wanting to join research. Marie Curie worked in the heavily male-dominated world of science.

How far do you think we've progressed in gender equality in science? Is there still an issue?
When she registered at the Sorbonne in 1891 there were 1800 students in science and 23 were women. This has now changed, and the statistics better represent the population. I would say there isn't a gender issue starting work, but in terms of taking responsibility in some labs, there still can be. But this is improving, and we're getting more women as heads of laboratories, and directors. There are still glitches, but the basic trend is the right one.

How does her legacy live on?
So many developments have been made since Marie Curie, that what she did is now almost taken for granted. But in terms of ethics, the way she conducted herself in science, her methods, her rigour, her behaviour as a scientist, her achievements, her determination to be as objective and accurate as possible make her an effective role model.

She only presented results when she was completely sure, everything was checked, double-checked and triple-checked. She was certainly a wonderful example, so this is her legacy, the method: not only in science, but in everyday life.

Serge Plattard was talking to Simon Lightfoot.

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