The public has always had a thirst for frivolous scandals and the private lives of notable individuals in society. The dirtier the details, the better, for there’s nothing some people love more than to see a hero fall into disgrace. Though nowadays we see this in action mostly with the reputation of entertainment celebrities, believe it or not during the early 20th century, when many scientists actually attained cult celebrity status in the mainstream, the remarkable Marie Curie was, what we call today, ‘canceled’. But in the midst of a huge scandal that threatened to destroy Ms. Curie’s legacy and life’s work, another luminary of science, the great Albert Einstein, came to her rescue writing a remarkable letter of support that, in his characteristic style, is full of wisdom that’s relevant today.
In 1903, Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics, which she shared with her husband, Pierre, for their groundbreaking research on radioactivity, a term she coined. Marie went on to win the Nobel Prize once more in 1911 in chemistry for her discovery of the elements polonium and radium, using techniques she invented for isolating radioactive isotopes. To this day, she is the only person in history who’s won a Nobel Prize in two different fields.
But, despite her remarkable academic achievements, Marie suffered many injustices. Imagine Madame Marie Sklodowska Curie, a double Nobel laureate, getting snubbed entry for the single vacant seat for a physicist in the French Academy of Sciences for which she applied — that’s exactly what happened.
After she formally applied for the vacant seat in November 1910, the French tabloids began having a field day with her reputation on almost a daily basis. All manner of slander and fabrications were said about Marie, including that she was Jewish, not truly French, and thus undeserving of being admitted to the French Academy. The right-wing press also liked to touch on other nonscientific, gossipy subjects regarding Marie’s life, while praising her rival, physicist Edouard Branly, who pioneered the development of radio waves and transmission.
Branly won the election on January 23, 1911, by two votes and Curie responded like she always had when faced with a major setback — just throwing herself into more work.
However, this salient experience was nothing compared to the scandal that was about to erupt that same year.
The Langevin Affair and Einstein’s letter
In 1906, Pierre Curie died in a freak road accident in Paris, after he tripped and fell beneath the wheels of a horse-drawn carriage, suffering a fatal skull fracture. Marie was devastated by the loss, as was Paul Langevin, Pierre’s former doctoral student and protege.
Langevin was brilliant and acclaimed for a thesis on ionized gases. Since he was French-born and a man, he found no difficulty getting elected to the College de France and the Academy of Sciences. He was also daring, having scaled the Eiffel Tower on a quest to find the purest air in the city for a study of electric currents in the atmosphere.
Joined by grief and brilliance, the two started an affair. There was one problem though: Langevin was married, and deeply unhappy with the union too.
Madame Langevin was aware of her husband’s occasional infidelities, but she found “his relationship with Marie more upsetting, and before long a violent animosity rose up between the two women,” Lauren Redniss wrote in the 2010 book Radioactive, a biography of the iconic chemist’s life.
The two lovers had secretly rented an apartment in Paris, which was no real secret to Langevin’s wife, Jeanne. The disgruntled wife hired a private investigator who broke into the apartment while the couple was away and stole letters written to one another.
“I am trembling with impatience at the thought of seeing you return at last, and of telling you how much I missed you. I kiss you tenderly awaiting tomorrow…” Langevin wrote in one of their letters.
Jeanne threatened to take the letters to press and air their dirty laundry for all to see, and Curie and Langevin stayed apart for much of 1911.
They reunited in October at the Solvay Conference in Brussels, an international conference attended by some 20 other world-class scientists, including Albert Einstein.
When Curie returned home from the conference, she found out that her affair with Langevin had made the front page of every French tabloid. She was even greeted by an angry mob congregating in front of her home in Sceaux, which terribly upset her daughters, 14-year-old Irène and 7-year-old Eve. Curie and her daughters had to take refuge in the home of friends in Paris, including that of Mathematician Emile Borel, scientific director of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, who was threatened he would lose his job after the Minister of Public Instruction accused him of sullying French academic honor.
She denied the allegations until another tabloid printed some of the love letters, along with angry editorials from the editors calling Curie a ‘homewrecker’ and a disgrace to France. Jeanne also formally filed for divorce, and the trial’s date was set to begin just as Marie was scheduled to accept her second Nobel Prize in Stockholm, on December 10th.
At this point, the members of the Nobel Committee were getting very nervous and were privately urging Marie Curie not to come to the award ceremony, out of fear she would cause an embarrassment. After all, what would the Norwegian Princess and all the other royal guests think of sharing the banquet room with a disgraced woman?
But Albert Einstein — who to be fair, had earlier fathered an illegitimate child with a former student — thought radically differently, penning a letter of encouragement to Marie Curie, urging her “Go to Stockholm!”
Highly esteemed Mrs. Curie,
Do not laugh at me for writing you without having anything sensible to say. But I am so enraged by the base manner in which the public is presently daring to concern itself with you that I absolutely must give vent to this feeling. However, I am convinced that you consistently despise this rabble, whether it obsequiously lavishes respect on you or whether it attempts to satiate its lust for sensationalism!
I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty, and that I consider myself lucky to have made your personal acquaintance in Brussels. Anyone who does not number among these reptiles is certainly happy, now as before, that we have such personages among us as you, and Langevin too, real people with whom one feels privileged to be in contact. If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.
With most amicable regards to you, Langevin, and Perrin, yours very truly,
P.S. I have determined the statistical law of motion of the diatomic molecule in Planck’s radiation field by means of a comical witticism, naturally under the constraint that the structure’s motion follows the laws of standard mechanics. My hope that this law is valid in reality is very small, though.Albert Einstein, 23 November 1911.
Einstein’s letter contains sage advice that is most relevant today. “If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.” That’s definitely something we all should take to heart, especially in this day and age where internet trolls abound.
Marie Curie, perhaps emboldened by Einstein, did travel to Stockholm to claim her prize for her landmark discovery of radium and polonium. The ceremony passed without any notable incident, much to the relief of the Nobel bureaucrats. Actually, not only did everything go fine, Curie actually had an 11-course dinner with the King of Sweden, who was no saint. Years later, it came to light that King Gustaf had an affair of his own, also with a married man.
Ten days after the Nobel ceremony, the Langevins settled their differences in court. Jeanne got custody of the four children while Paul had visitation rights.
Unfortunately, the scandal had taken a toll on Curie and Langevin’s relationship. The two would remain cordially in contact and maintain a scientific relationship, but their love affair was over.
But Curie went on to form a close friendship with Einstein, the two vacationing together with their children in the summer of 1913. When France was shaken up by a wave of anti-German sentiments in the 1920s, Curie lobbied in favor of Einstein to secure him a lecture position in Paris.
When Marie Curie died in 1935, Einstein still had only kind words to say during a memorial celebration at New York’s Roerich Museum.
“I came to admire her human grandeur to an ever-growing degree,” he told the audience. “Her strength, her purity of will, her austerity toward herself, her objectivity, her incorruptible judgment – all these were of a kind seldom found joined in a single individual. … If but a small part of Mme. Curie’s strength of character and devotion were alive in Europe’s intellectuals, Europe would face a brighter future.”