Monday, January 19, 2015

Marie Curie: Notable Nobel Prize Winner and Contributor to Women in Physics

 Marie Curie: 
Notable Nobel Prize Winner 
and Contributor to Women in Physics

You may think you already know all there is to know about Marie Curie, but we hope this article detailing why she made our list of important women physicists will shed new light on her contributions to the fields of chemistry and physics.

The Nobel Prizes

Did you know that Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only woman to win the prize in two different fields of science? She won the Nobel Prize in Physics (1903) and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1911). While others have won two Nobel prizes, no one else, man or woman, has won the prize in both physics and chemistry. The Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903  was shared with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel and awarded for their work on radioactivity. Her Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 was awarded to Marie Curie alone, for her discovery of radium and polonium and the isolation of radium and study of this element’s intriguing properties.

Long-Lasting Impact on Women in Physics

Marie Curie’s accomplishments were unprecedented in the history of science, but her contributions to women in the field of physics reaches further than admiration for her Nobel Prizes. Curie is notable for starting the Curie Institutes (one located in Paris and one in Warsaw), also known as the Radium Institutes, funded by the Curie Foundation.

Curie travelled to the United States in search of funding for her research, and she successfully funded the Warsaw Branch of the Radium Institute in 1929; later she appointed her sister, Bronya, as director of the Warsaw institute.  In the following decades, the Curie Foundation became an important player in the treatment of cancer. In a 1900 research paper, Pierre and Marie were the first to suggest and research the use of radiation therapy to treat cancer.

“It may be easily understood how deeply I appreciated the privilege of realizing that our discovery had become a benefit to mankind, not only through its great scientific importance, but also by its power of efficient action against human suffering and terrible disease. This was indeed a splendid reward for our years of hard toil.” –from Autobiographical Notes, pp. 199-200, quoted on this website 

 The institutes focused on research in physical chemistry and the majority of employees were women physicists. Curie’s daughter Irene became a researcher there, and later went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1935 (jointly with her husband, Frederic Joliot, a chemical engineer) for their work on artificial radioactivity and the synthesis of new radioactive elements.

 Another colleague, Marguerite Perey, who was employed by Madame Curie, discovered the element Francium.

Women at Work in the Curie Lab: Sonia Cotelle and Marguerite Perey

More Discoveries

Marie and Pierre, 

Curie also discovered uranium, which was extracted from a black ore called “pitchblende.” She even influences the way we talk about radioactivity. She invented the terms “radioactive” and “isotope.” Later, Pierre and Marie would apply their work with radioactivity to the treatment of cancerous tumors. There is a myth that Marie was an assistant to Pierre in his work, however, that is not true; Pierre was working on crystals at a time when Marie’s work appeared more promising, and so he joined her in her research. The element “curium” is named after Pierre and Marie Curie and radioactivity is measured in “curies.”

Pierre Curie is known for some discoveries in his own right, as well, including the Curie Effect—when you heat a piece of metal and it loses its magnetism. He is also known for Piezo electricity—when you put pressure on a crystal, it generates a voltage. Not every crystal does this, but this is still used today, like in ultrasonic speakers.

Education and Early Influences

Marie Curie as a Child:

Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland in 1867. Both of her parents were teachers and her father taught her some science. She attended local schools and later, in 1891, she moved to Paris to study math and physics at the Sorbonne. She earned her Doctor of Science degree in 1903, and when her husband Pierre passed away, she became the first woman to hold the position of Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences.  

The Importance of Encouraging Parents, Teachers, Mentors, and Colleagues

It is worth mentioning that many of the women physicists in our series had parents who strongly supported their daughters' educations. Without this early and ongoing parental support (all the more important in time periods and societies that were not encouraging toward educating women), these young women would not have achieved their later, great accomplishments. 

Teachers, mentors, and supportive colleagues are also very important, as much now as in the past. In the case of Maria Goeppert-Mayer, a teacher, like Max Born encouraged her interest in physics and colleague Enrico Fermi supported her research. For Marie Curie, her colleague was her husband, Pierre Curie, who put some of his research aside to support her promising work. 

Later, Marie used her success to support other women in physics through raising funding and hiring women to work in her research institutes. These women proved that her investments were worthwhile as they went on to discover an element or win a Nobel Prize. 

If you are a teacher, think of yourself as a mentor and encourage a young woman to pursue physics. If you have a colleague or acquaintance who is trying to make her way as a woman in physics, think about how you can be a more supportive colleague. 

Marie Curie with daughters Eve and Irene

Read the rest of our series about top ten important women in physics:

  1. Maria Goeppert-Mayer
  2. Lise Meitner
  3. Emmy Noether
  4. Sally Ride
  5. C.S. Wu

Saturday, January 17, 2015

New Physics Teacher Workshop on Electricity and Magnetism

This Saturday, January 17, SCAAPT held the New Physics Teacher Workshop (NPTW) at Santa Monica College.

The science building (below)

The topic for today was Electricity and Magnetism for New Teachers, with a focus on hands-on demos and labs. Teachers received handouts about everything from circuits to magnetostatics.

Teachers received one of our best "goodie bags" ever. Leiden Jars, powerful magnets, and more (see photo above).

Participants received many free lab and demo materials, as well as helpful handouts. Breakfast and lunch were provided as well. If you want to attend our next workshop, join our email list by writing to LincolnPhysics at gmail dot com. It is likely that the workshop will be scheduled in April or May.

Special thanks to Xump for once again donating bags for the workshop!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Maria Goeppert Mayer: Nobel Prize Winner, 1963

Maria Goeppert Mayer won a Nobel Prize in Nuclear Physics in 1963. She developed the nuclear shell model of atomic nuclei. She is an important woman in physics for her model of perseverance and her research discoveries. Even during times when universities would not employ her as a professor or physicist, she continued to learn, conduct research, write textbooks, pursue physics, and persevere, until she met more enlightened colleagues to collaborate on her research.

Early Life and Education

Mayer came from a family of academics. For several generations back, her relatives were professors. She was born in Germany and spent much of her life in Gottingen. At the time, this was a prime location for a person interested in physics. Her father was employed by the university and her parents ensured that she could pursue her education, even when the local school for girls was closed. After graduating from high school, she attended university (starting in 1924) intending to study mathematics, but physics sparked her interest. Mayer was a mathematics student until she attended the physics seminars given by Max Born. In an interview she recalls the seminars: "It was very nice, because usually after the seminars we’d go for a walk with Born — the whole seminar — anyone who wanted to come along, and go somewhere in the hills and have a rustic supper in one of the village inns.” Later, she changed her major to physics.

This was a time when the place to be for studying physics was Germany, and she was near the center of cutting edge ideas in nuclear physics and quantum mechanics.  While at University, she spent a term in Cambridge, England, where she learned English—this would serve her well later, when she immigrated to the United States. In 1930, she earned her Ph.D. in theoretical physics.

During her time at university in Gottingen, she was mentored by other Nobel Laureates, including James Franck and Adolf Windaus.

Her Career

During the Great Depression, Mayer immigrated to America with her husband, chemist Joseph E. Mayer, who became a professor at Johns Hopkins University. James Franck was also at JHU at the time. During this time, the university would not consider employing her. Mayer gave birth to a son and a daughter during their time in Baltimore. However, later her husband transferred to Columbia University and she worked at Sarah Lawrence College as a professor and researcher; her work there focused on the separation of isotopes of uranium with Harold Urey, a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry. Through her interests and colleagues, she became a “chemical physicist” and worked on the study of the color of organic molecules.

Her career really took off when she moved to Chicago with her husband in 1946. There, she was tmore accepted (although she was still not paid and employed as a full professor) and became a professor of physics and researcher at the Institute for Nuclear Studies. She had a lot to learn about Nuclear Physics, but supportive and stimulating colleagues like Enrico Fermi worked with her. 

Fermi and Mayer 
(image credit

Nobel-Worthy Discoveries

In 1948, Mayer began to work with the study of magic numbers; over the next several years, she developed an explanation and began to understand the ramifications of her ideas. Meanwhile, other scientists, Wigner and Jensen, were working on these ideas as well and arrived at similar conclusions as Mayer.

 They decided to write a book together and were later awarded the Nobel Prize jointly. Mayer and Jensen officially shared half the prize for their “discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure.”

Women in Physics

When she won the Nobel Prize, a local newspaper in San Diego ran the following headline “S.D. Mother Wins Nobel Prize.” At the time, she was a paid professor of physics at the University of California in San Diego/La Jolla. However, it is interesting (and perhaps representative of the times and the very real professional and social obstacles she had to overcome to be taken seriously as a professional physicist) that the newspaper characterized her as a mother and not a physicist in the headline.

Our previous selection of an important woman in physics, C.S. Wu, was not honored with the Nobel Prize with her colleagues in 1957. The fact that Mayer was honored for her work in 1963, only a few years later, was definitely a step in the right direction for the progress of women in science.


Read more about Mayer here 

Read the official Nobel Prize biography, which was consulted for this blog, here 

Download a PDF of the Nobel Lecture 

Read an interview with Mayer at the American Institute of Physics website.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

10 Cool Demos with a Liquid Crystal Sheet

Testing out three different light sources for their heat output. 
The sheet is more convincing than a typical thermometer

Have you ever wanted to watch ten cool demos performed using a Liquid Crystal Sheet (also known as a heat sensitive sheet)? 

One of my videos is featured in the Arbor Scientific CoolStuff Newsletter. You can sign up for the newsletter here. Read my article here.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Top Ten Women in Physics: C.S. Wu

C.S. Wu

“C.S. Wu’s great discovery inaugurated the golden age of particle physics.” –James Watson Cronin, nuclear physicist

Top Ten Women in Physics: see also our other blogs about Lise Meitner, Sally Ride, and Emmy Noether.

Who is C.S. Wu?

If you were asked to point your finger at the top female experimental physicist, many people would select Chien-Shiung Wu (C.S. Wu). She created one of the most precise and groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting experiments in physics. Her work had a huge impact on theoretical physics, and she is famous as an experimentalist. She performed experiments for Lise Meitner and James Chadwick (who discovered the neutron), but her most famous experiment proved the theory proposed by theoretical physicists T.D. Lee and C.N. Yang.

Early Years and Education

A book for kids ages 9-12 about C.S. Wu

C.S. Wu was born in China in 1912. Her father was an engineer who also directed a school for girls. He believed that girls should be educated.  In 1936, Wu immigrated to the United States. She earned her Ph.D.  by 1940 from the University of California, Berkeley and her work was admired by Oppenheimer, which later led to an invitation to work on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University. After WWII, Wu continued to work at Columbia as a research scientist. She is honored as one of 250 Remarkable Columbians

 Understanding the Experiment: Chirality

To understand the work of Chinese-American physicist C.S. Wu, you must understand first the concept of chirality. Imagine you are walking up a spiral staircase. As viewed from above, are you walking clockwise or counterclockwise? To answer that question is to describe the chirality of the staircase.  A more common example is the turning of the screw.  As you turn the screw, your thumb is probably pointed downward—this is the chirality of most screws, which are said to be “right-handed.” Chirality is important in the microscopic world, specifically in relation to electrons and nucleons (protons and neutrons), because they spin with specific chirality.

The question addressed by C.S. Wu was whether the laws of physics would be symmetric under reflection. For example, if you held a mirror up to a ballerina, the reflection would spin in the opposite direction. On this scale, no one doubts that the laws of physics are symmetric. In the past, this belief was extended to the scale of the nucleus, without testing the belief. However, C.S. Wu performed a nuclear experiment that demonstration a violation of the parity. She worked in the field of nuclear physics, within quantum mechanics.

The Experiment

Chinese theoretical physicists C.N. Yang and T.D. Lee proposed the hypothesis of parity violation and asked C.S. Wu, who was at the time working at Columbia University in New York, if she could test the hypothesis. Wu designed and carried out an experiment where she artificially magnetized radioactive Cobalt-60 crystals (which must be kept at low temps or cryogenically frozen) and observed that a majority of the radioactive beta particles were ejected in the direction of the spin of the nucleus. The prediction based on the erroneous parity assumption was that the particles should be randomly scattered--however, they were not during the experiment. Through her experiment, she discovered parity violation: the laws of physics are NOT symmetric on the atomic scale. Thus, she proved the hypothesis of Yang and Lee.

Her Legacy

In 1957, Yang and Lee were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics and they were the first Chinese Nobel Laureates. T.D. Lee stated of Wu that “In the field of beta-decay, she has no equal.” However, Wu was snubbed and did not receive the prize, but her work was essential. The experiment that upsets the established physics is as important as the ideas proposed by Yang and Lee. She should have shared in the prize. 

Without her contribution, no one would have believed in parity violation. Wu was a respected physicist, often consulted for her experimental work. She was the only non-citizen to work on the Manhattan Project, where she worked on radiation detectors. Some call her the “First Lady of Physics," and she was the first female president of the American Physical Society. Wu has authored or co-authored books such as Beta Decay and Nuclear Physics.

According to Griffiths, “the overthrow of parity had a profound effect on physicists—devastating to some, exhilarating to others.” --from Introduction to Elementary Particles by David Griffiths.

Later, the work was extended and the explanation of parity violation as explained through the chirality of neutrinos, which cause beta decay. It turns out that all neutrinos* have left-handed spins (*however, recent research or theorizing seems to point toward the possible existence of some right-handed neutrinos in the universe).

A True Paradigm Shift

The paradigm-shifting work of C.S. Wu is valuable because it reveals yet another surprise of the quantum mechanical world—another way this mysterious world does not match the macroscopic world and breaks with the assumptions and laws of physics in the macroscopic world. Wu stated of her work: "The sudden liberation of our thinking on the very structure of the physical world was overwhelming."  

Learn More:

According to this webpage about Wu at UCLA, Wu had many "firsts," including first female physics instructor at Princeton University, first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Princeton University, and first woman to be elected President of the American Physical Society.


Read more at: 

and in this book

An article about the writing process for her biography by T.C. Chiang.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

InfraRed Experiments Made Awesome!

One of my original demos, using a thermographic camera. 
Above, the hand is brought into focus using a germanium lens. 

I will be giving an invited talk from 7:30-8pm on Monday night at the AAPT conference in San Diego. See details in the conference program as well. 

The focus of the presentation is infrared experiments made awesome, for high school and college students. You won't want to miss this because I will be sharing some just-invented original demos, never before seen ANYWHERE!

Date and Location: Monday, January 5th, Nautilus Hall 3: Along with other presentations about "Advanced Video Techniques," beginning at 7pm.

Presentation Description:
It's time that Infrared Light stopped being invisible! In this talk, I outline video and experimental techniques that make infrared light as real as visible light. I will address Near, Far, and Intermediate IR Light and vividly demonstrate several video and photographic techniques that you can replicate. Many of these demos are original, to be seen nowhere else! Special attention is paid to interactive engagement, direct measurements, and practical demonstrations for both the beginner and the advanced physics instructor. 

That's how I look through a thermographic camera!

Friday, January 2, 2015

AAPT 2015 Winter Meeting

I will be presenting at the AAPT 2015 Winter Meeting in San Diego this weekend. 

I will be presenting two workshops, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. I will also give a presentation about awesome infrared demos--it will feature many original demos, so you don't want to miss it!

W01: Workshop on Digital Spectroscopy

Sponsored by the Committee on Space Science and Astronomy

January 3rd, Saturday, 8am-12pm: 

Member price: $65              Non-member price: $90

Location: SCST 290

Hosted by Trina Cannon, Gilliam Collegiate Academy

New Demonstration Experiments in Spectrum Analsyis. In this workshop, master demonstrator James Lincoln instructs on new techniques in performing spectrum analysis experiments with your students that are sure to improve their learning experiences. The presentation will also feature classic trusted demos. Learn how to use the RSPEC Explorer, a new and inexpensive apparatus that makes teaching spectrum clear to students. Participants are encouraged to bring a laptop computer.  

Watch this video about the RSPEC Explorer on Arbor Scientific's YouTube Channel:

Sunday's Workshop

W30: Making Good Physics Videos

Sponsors: Committee on Apparatus and Committee on Educational Technologies

January 4th, Sunday, 8am-12pm: 

Member price: $70              Non-member price: $95

Location: SCST 252

Flipping the Classroom and the emergence of free online video hosting has led many of us to be asked to make videos of our lessons and demos. In this workshop, you will learn the five methods of video engagement, fast and effective video writing techniques, and beginner/intermediate editing skill competency theat will improve your video quality and help get your message across more effectively. Your instructor is master physics teacher and filmmaker James Lincoln who has made over 100 science videos. Tips and ideas for effective and engaging physics demos are also included. 

You can read an article (published in the National Association for Gifted Children's SCOPE newsletter )about creating science videos with students here: "Engaging Students Through the Production of Student Films: Advice for Successful Movies"

See more information about the conference here: 

You can read descriptions of the many presentations from the conference program here