One Small Step for Woman:

Probing the Depths of Inner Space

Marie Curie and the Revolution in Our Concept of Matter


Introduction:  Curie's Greatness as a Discoverer.

We value and honor those who explore and expand the limits of human knowledge, who take humanity with them to places heretofore unseen, to new undiscovered countries, who boldly go where no one has gone before. We have explored the globe, gone beyond the globe to the far reaches of space, peered back into the deepest depths of the past to the origins of the universe and far ahead into the future. But perhaps the most dangerous exploration of all is the inquiry into the insides of things, into the matter which makes things up, for what we find there is an all of us, in everything. Curie's greatness was in probing the depths of matter to attempt to discover its fundamental nature.

          A. Curie, though an experimentalist and not a great theoretician, is great because the discovery and recognition of new facts often requires a radical alteration in one's world view. One cannot discover without, to some extent, understanding what you are discovering, and great discoveries require great and courageous shifts in how we see the world.

          B. We also value a discoverer for the significance of what they discover, not just their personal struggle and qualities. Columbus sought a New Route to India, but discovered, instead a New World. We honor him despite his mistake because the world he found is ours. Curie's discovery of radiation was part of the beginning of perhaps the most important revolution in how we see the world in the history of mankind, a revolution which is still not complete in its effects. To see the greatness of Curie, we must see how she participated in a revolution that changed how all of us must view the world.


Part One:  Scientific Discoveries and Changing World Views.

For the Eye altering alters all

The Senses roll themselves in fear

And the flat Earth becomes a Ball 

                                             William Blake


One of the most influential books in Philosophy in the last 50 years is Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, Kuhn provides an account of the nature of scientific inquiry and discovery that helps to show how the experimental work of an investigator at the beginning of a scientific revolution is just as difficult and important as the later theoretical work that brings us to a full understanding of the new phenomena. Seeing new facts requires new paradigms, new ways of seeing the world.

          A. The Paradigm: the context of scientific inquiry. Kuhn argues that all scientific investigations must go on within a paradigm: a constellation of beliefs, practices, habits, and values that determines how the scientist understands the world, what kind of problems they see as interesting, the methods they use to solve those problems, and the criteria they use for determining when a solution is successful. The Scientist does not operate in a completely objective vacuum. All scientific inquiry must be guided by a paradigm that defines the nature of the discipline and influences everything the scientist does. Kuhn calls the activity of the scientist guided and defined by such a paradigm normal science.  In order to make a really new discovery, the scientist must break free from the paradigm into a new mode of scientific inquiry that Kuhn calls revolutionary science.

          B. You may look, but you don't always see. One's paradigm affects what facts one is able to see. Discovery is not just a matter of looking and seeing. Not only how we see things, but what we see itself, is determined by the paradigm we are working under. Our perceptual world is constructed by us through the imposition of the concepts in our paradigm onto perceptual input we get from our sense organs. Discovery is an active process, not just a matter of passively looking to see what is there. Discovery of new facts involves seeing the world in new ways, seeing what was never there before for any other human. This often requires courageous acts of vision on the part of the scientist who must abandon the pre-conceptions of the paradigm that have made science possible until then.

          C. Finding new worlds or creating new worlds? One of Kuhn's most influential claims is that this fact can undermine the scientist's claims to objectivity. If all perception is influenced by the paradigm, then how can one find an objective standpoint from which to justify it? You may want to discuss whether a scientist is discovering completely objective facts about the world or creatively constructing new ways of seeing the world. If the latter, does this reduce their greatness?


Part Two:  What is Matter?   Undermining the Ground on Which We Stand.

The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.

                                                                                          Sir James Jeans

And here are trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes‑how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel? Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multicolored universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron.  But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which the planets gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know . . . .  That science that was to teach me everything ends up in hypothesis, that lucidity founders in a metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art.

                                                                           Camus,  The Myth of Sisyphus


The discovery of radioactivity and of the nucleus of the atom began a radical revision of how we see the matter that makes up the world. We can no longer understand the world in ways that are intelligible to common sense. We no longer live in a world with a bedrock of indivisible atoms. Our world has been undermined.

          A. A Mechanical Universe. The view of the universe that arose from the Scientific revolution and which dominated the Enlightenment was a comfortable and familiar one. The Universe was a vast machine populated by indivisible tiny hunks of matter called atoms, a view that thinkers like Robert Boyle (1627-1691) had resurrected from the ancient atomists such as Democritus (~410 BC). Isaac Newton (1642-1727) had provided the mathematical laws of motion that allowed scientists to understand the workings of the little billiard ball like projectiles that made up the vast machine of the universe. The world was composed of smaller versions of the familiar types of objects and forces that make up the macroscopic world.

          B. Some early Mysteries.

               1. Light, as had been recognized early on by thinkers such as Christian Huygens (1629-1695) to have properties that made it seem more like a wave than particle. The phenomena of interference and diffraction  were signs that light was not a simple particle.

               2. Magnetism and Electricity were mysterious forces that, like gravity, acted at a distance. They were  not to be explained in terms of the simple motions and collisions of particles. James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) would discover that these two forces were different aspects of the same phenomenon and that light itself could be seen as an electro-magnetic oscillation or wave.

          C. The atom yields up its insides. Marie Curie's work was part of the discovery that the atom is not atomic. That is, that it is not the indivisible smallest component of matter. J.J. Thomson (1856-1940) discovered the electron in 1897, and Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) formulates a theory of the transformation of the elements as an explanation of radioactivity in 1902 and discovers the nucleus of the atom in 1911.  The amounts of energy stored in the nucleus and the amount of empty space in the atom, once believed to be indivisible and immutable, are incomprehensible in terms of our normal experience. Neils Bohr (1885-1962) formulates the theory of the atom with small central nucleus and orbiting electrons in 1913.

          D. The World gets weird: Quantum Mechanics. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) formulates, in 1905, the Special Theory of Relativity, which includes the famous equation relating matter and energy, as well as the theory that energy is radiated, not continuously, but in discrete packets called quanta. Erwin Scroedinger (1887-1961) formulates a wave equation for particles of matter, showing that matter, as well as light, can be seen as a wave. Werner Heisenberg (b. 1901) formulates the Uncertainty Principle, which states that it is impossible to simultaneously determine the exact position and momentum of any piece of matter. Matter becomes an indefinite wavelike phenomenon having no definite location and motion and whose very existence depends upon the measurement of an observer. Our comfortable mechanical view of the universe has been undermined.


Part Three: Marie Curie's Discovery as an Achievement in the Humanities.

The disinterested study of the wonders of the natural world has long been seen as one of the highest human endeavors. To know one oneself and one's place in the world one must inquire into the mysteries of matter. The study of the mysteries of the natural world is one of the highest human endeavors because (1) It reveals to us a beauty and structure in nature completely independent of us yet in harmony with our faculties. It makes us feel at home in the world. (2) It exposes us to the sublime, those aspects of nature that go beyond our capacities of sense and our faculties of understanding to enlarge us and make us greater than ourselves. Marie Curie's achievement is great, not just because of her great experimental skill and perseverance nor merely because of her strength in overcoming the obstacles put in front of women, but because she courageously opened the door onto an inner space within all matter. She took the first small step into an inner space more strange and wondrous than any new continent, planet, or galaxy.


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