Biography of Pierre Curie, Influential French Physicist, Chemist, Nobel Laureate

Chemists Pierre and Marie Curie in Laboratory
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Pierre Curie (May 15, 1859–April 19, 1906) was a French physicist, physical chemist, and Nobel laureate. Many people are familiar with his wife Marie Curie's accomplishments but might not know about his own work. Pierre Curie pioneered scientific research in the fields of magnetism, radioactivity, piezoelectricity, and crystallography.

Fast Facts: Pierre Curie

  • Known For: Influential French physicist, physical chemist, and Nobel laureate; co-discoverer (along with Marie Curie) of radioactive elements radium and polonium
  • Born: May 15, 1859 in Paris, France
  • Parents:  Eugène and Sophie-Claire Curie
  • Died: April 19, 1906 in Paris, France
  • Education: Faculty of Sciences at the Sorbonne (the equivalent of master's degree); University of Paris (Doctorate, 1895)
  • Published Works: "Propriétés Magnétiques des Corps à Diverses Températures" ("Magnetic Properties of Bodies at Various Temperatures")
  • Awards and Honors: Nobel Prize in Physics, Matteucci Medal, Davy Medal, Elliott Cresson Medal
  • Spouse: Marie Curie (m. 1895–1906)
  • Children: Irène Joliot-Curie, Ève Curie
  • Notable Quote: "Is it right to probe so deeply into Nature's secrets? The question must here be raised whether it will benefit mankind, or whether the knowledge will be harmful."

Early Life, Work, and Education

Pierre Curie was born on May 15, 1859, in Paris, France, to Eugene Curie and Sophie-Claire Depouilly Curie. Curie received his early education from his father, a doctor. He earned a math degree at age 16 and had completed the requirements for a higher degree by age 18, earning the "licence ès sciences" (the equivalent of a master's degree in the U.S.) at the Sorbonne in Paris. He could not immediately afford to pursue his doctorate, so he began working at the school as a lab instructor in 1878.

In 1882, Curie was appointed supervisor at the School of Physics and Industrial Chemistry at Paris, where he did research in a number of scientific areas, particularly in studies of magnetism. He remained in that position for 22 years. During that time, he also began post-graduate work at the University of Paris and received a doctorate from the institution in 1895. His doctoral thesis was titled "Propriétés Magnétiques des Corps à Diverses Températures" ("Magnetic Properties of Bodies at Various Temperatures").

Meeting and Marrying Marie Sklodowska

Possibly the most important meeting in Curie's life was with the woman who would become his wife and scientific partner, earning many accolades for herself and making countless discoveries, Marie Sklodowska. Pierre's friend, physicist Jozef Wierusz-Kowalski, introduced them. Marie became Pierre's lab assistant and student. The first time Pierre proposed to Marie, she refused him, but she eventually agreed to marry him on July 26, 1895. Aside from sharing their lives, their union produced one of the most famous scientific pairings in history. Pierre Curie had many scientific discoveries and breakthroughs of his own and many with his wife as well.

Scientific Discoveries

Pierre and Marie Curie were the first to use the word "radioactivity," and a unit used to measure radioactivity, the Curie, is named in honor of one or both of them (a topic of debate among historians). Pierre and Marie also discovered the elements radium and polonium. Additionally, they were the first to discover nuclear energy from heat emitted by radium. They observed that radioactive particles might carry a positive, negative, or neutral charge.

Pierre and Marie Curie shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with Henri Becquerel for their research of radiation. Then, Pierre Curie co-discovered the piezoelectric effect with his brother Jacques. The piezoelectric effect describes the creation of an electric field by compressed crystals. Pierre and Jacques found that crystals could deform when subjected to an electrical field, and they invented the Piezoelectric Quartz Electrometer to aid in their investigations. Pierre developed a scientific instrument called the Curie Scale to take accurate data as well. He also proposed the Curie Dissymmetry Principle, which states that a physical effect cannot have dissymmetry separate from its cause.

Later Years and Death

Curie died on April 19, 1906, in a street accident in Paris, France. He was crossing a street in the rain, slipped, and fell under a horse-drawn cart. He died instantly from a skull fracture when a wheel ran over his head.

Legacy

Pierre Curie is considered one of the founders of modern physics. The element curium, atomic number 96, is named in honor of Pierre and Marie Curie. Pierre Curie developed many scientific principles that are still relevant today. For his doctoral research, he formulated a description of the relationship between temperature and magnetism that became known as Curie's law, which uses a constant known as the Curie constant. He found there was a critical temperature above which ferromagnetic materials lose their behavior. That transition temperature is known as the Curie point. Pierre's magnetism research is among his greatest contributions to science.

Pierre and Marie Curie had children that would become successful in their fields too. Pierre and Marie's daughter Irene and son-in-law Frederic Joliot-Curie were physicists who studied radioactivity and also received Nobel prizes. Their other daughter Eve wrote a biography about her mother. Pierre and Marie's granddaughter Helene is a nuclear physics professor and grandson Pierre Joliot—named for Pierre Curie—is a biochemist.

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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Biography of Pierre Curie, Influential French Physicist, Chemist, Nobel Laureate." ThoughtCo, Jul. 12, 2021, thoughtco.com/pierre-curie-biography-and-achievements-4034912. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2021, July 12). Biography of Pierre Curie, Influential French Physicist, Chemist, Nobel Laureate. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/pierre-curie-biography-and-achievements-4034912 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Biography of Pierre Curie, Influential French Physicist, Chemist, Nobel Laureate." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/pierre-curie-biography-and-achievements-4034912 (accessed October 23, 2021).

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