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Rediscovering Marie Curie and the pioneering women of science

05 Mar 2015 Tushna Commissariat
Photograph of a panel of speakers at the women in physics conference

By Tushna Commissariat

This Sunday, as the world celebrates International Women’s Day, I’ll be thinking of some amazing women who had a huge impact on the world of physics, helping shape the field as we know it today. Indeed, yesterday I was at the Institute of Physics in London, attending a day-long conference on “The lives and times of pioneering women in physics” hosted by the Institute’s Women in Physics group along with its History of Physics group. While there were a host of interesting speakers at the event, undoubtedly the star of the day was French nuclear physicist Hélène Langevin-Joliot, granddaughter of one of the 20th-century’s most famous female physicists – Marie Curie.

Langevin-Joliot spoke to us about her grandmother’s life, talking about Curie’s early days in Warsaw, describing her first meeting with husband Pierre as a “decisive encounter”, saying that he was so taken with Curie’s intelligence that “one conversation was enough for Pierre to change his mind about [all] women!” Langevin-Joliot described her parents’ and grandparents’ scientific endeavours, mentioning just how much all of them loved physics and how that was always their main motivation. I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down and talk with Langevin-Joliot after the conference, as she told me all about how she herself rediscovered the legacy of her grandmother – “Mae” as she and her mother called her – among other things, so keep an eye out in Physics World to find out more in the coming months.

Photograph of Hélène Langevin-Joliot (right) and Tushna Commissariat

Historian Allan Chapman also gave us a highly entertaining talk on the brilliant and intriguing polymath that was Mary Somerville, telling us about how she died (aged 91) at her desk correcting proofs. Heather Williams, chair of the Institute’s Women in Physics group, medical physicist and director of ScienceGrrl – an organization that supports women in science – gave the concluding talk of the evening, outlining the bias that still exists against women in science, and how to help remove it. All in all, it was a day of celebrating the many and vast contributions of women in science that are often relegated to the footnotes of history.

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