Monday, September 28, 2009

88. Radium


The Ghost of Pierre Curie Reminisces

She had a radiant smile. It lit up the night. Her name was Marie Sklodowska when I met her. I was working on crystallography, piezoelectricity, and the effects of temperature on magnetism at the time. But the real magnetism was all hers.

We went dancing. So taken with her was I that I stuttered and stammered and spoke like a fool. It made me flush red with anger at myself. But then she touched my shoulder with her gloved hand and I looked into those amazing eyes of hers and was trapped as firmly as a single chromium atom in a ruby lattice.

We wed. To the world, she became Madame Curie. But to me, she was ever and always Marie. At the Ecole de Physique et de Chimie Industrielle, she measured the strength of uranium compounds, and made the surprising discovery that pitchblende emitted four times more radiation than could be explained by its uranium content. Seeing the implications immediately, I joined her in her research. Together we discovered polonium and radium. We isolated a gram of radium salts, and determined the atomic weights and properties of both elements.

In 1903, we shared the Nobel Prize in Physics. Oh, the passion we shared that night in our enormous bed on the top floor of the Grand Hotel in Stockholm! I would not have traded that evening for a thousand Nobel Prizes. She fell asleep in my arms, but I stayed up for hours, marveling at the richness of our life together.

Two years later, I was killed in a wagon accident. Marie grieved, and soldiered on. She became the first female lecturer at the Sorbonne. In 1911 she received a second Nobel, this time for chemistry. She put all her energies into the development of the uses of X rays in medicine. Now she is old and dying and I, a spirit no more tangible than the cosmic radiation that sleets unhindered through human flesh, hover at her bedside and whisper endearments that she cannot yet hear.

Oh, Marie, do you remember my arms about you? Do you remember my hands, my mouth? Do you remember our research, our long and patient hours at the electrometer? Do you remember that night when you touched my shoulder with your white-gloved hand and we danced? Around and around we whirled, like the twin electrons in helium's solitary and self-sufficient shell.

© 2003 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

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