TO HONOR ONE of the most enduringly inspiring scientists ever to grace a lab, France and Poland declared 2011 to be the Year of Marie Curie.
Now, Google joins the welcome pageant of prominent tributes.
The California company's search-engine home page on Nov. 7 celebrates the 144th anniversary of Madame Curie's birth with a pastel-colored "Google Doodle" so evocative of her era.
The laurels accorded Curie are numerous and still accumulating a century after she won her second Nobel Prize -- the first of only two people ever to win the prize in multiple fields (the other being Linus Pauling). She was also the first woman ever to win the Nobel, and the first researcher to win in multiple sciences (physics and chemistry). But the breadth and depth and influence of her career -- as well as the triumphs and tragedies of her life -- paint a much fuller picture of the groundbreaking figure who in a 2009 New Scientist poll was voted "the most inspirational woman in science."
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Born in Warsaw in 1867 as Maria Sklodowska, Curie left her native Poland after she was deemed too poor to marry her would-be fiance, future esteemed mathematician Kazimierz Zorawski. So with her sister's help, she relocated to France in the 1890s, studying at the University of Paris (Sorbonne) and meeting her scientific "soulmate," Pierre Curie. As they both studied the science of magnetism, they discovered, too, their own personal magnetic attraction.
Together, Marie and Pierre Curie did pioneering work in radioactivity (a term she coined), working with uranium, isolating radioactive isotopes and discovering the elements radium and polonium -- the latter named for her native land.
The Curies shared in the 1903 Nobel for physics, bringing them fame as side by side, they grew their professional and personal lives. They had two daughters before Pierre's untimely death when he was struck by a horse-drawn vehicle on a rainy street in 1906.
Rendered "wretched" and lonely by the tragedy, Marie Curie poured herself into her work, becoming the first woman to become a Sorbonne professor. In 1911, Curie received her second Nobel, this time for chemistry.
Several years later, during World War I, Curie helped set up mobile field hospitals that featured primitive X-ray equipment to help detect shrapnel in soldiers. She worked in the field with her teenage daughter Irene, who -- with her husband, Frederic Joliot-Curie -- would later win the 1935 chemistry Nobel for her work on artificial radioactivity.
Exposed to so many radioactive materials throughout her career, Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia in 1934.
In addition to her many honors, she founded the Curie Institutes in France and Poland; co-founded the Warsaw Radium Institute; and headed the Pasteur Institute.
On screen, Curie's inspiring life has been portrayed by such actresses as Oscar-nominated Greer Garson and Isabelle Huppert. And last month, Lauren Redniss's “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout” became the first nonfiction graphic narrative to be named a finalist for the National Book Award.
Curie's accomplishments in the lab led to her being interred (with her husband) at the Pantheon, Paris -- the first woman so honored based on her work.
Curie helped forever change not only how science thought about radioactivity, but also how the world perceived women in science.
Happy birthday, Madame Curie.