“Life should be made into a dream and a dream into a reality.” – Pierre Curie
We tend to think of dreamers as the artistic or poetic type but dreaming is important for any creative endeavor, including science.
The Nobel Prize winning scientist Pierre Curie, born in 1859 in Paris, was taught at home because his parents thought the schools would be too harsh for his sensitive nature. He was very intelligent but did not like to arbitrarily skip from one subject to the next. His wife Marie later described his learning as intense and focused. She wrote: “It is clear that a mind of this kind can hold great future possibilities. But it is no less clear that no system of education can be especially provided by the public school for persons of this intellectual type. If, then Pierre’s earliest instruction was irregular and incomplete, it had the advantage of [freeing his mind from] dogmas, prejudices or preconceived ideas. And he was always grateful to his parents for this liberal attitude.” She also said, “Pierre’s intellectual capacities were not those that would permit the rapid assimilation of a prescribed course of studies. His dreamer’s spirit would not submit itself to the ordering of the intellectual effort imposed by the school.”
His parents taught him biology, chemistry, physics, and geometry and he learned literature and history from the father’s large library. When he was fourteen, his father recognized his gift for mathematics, particularly spatial geometry, and he hired a tutor to teach him advanced mathematics. The tutor moved him up so quickly he was able to enter the prestigious Sorbonne at age sixteen.
Pierre seems to have been an introspective, thoughtful sort of boy. He loved to walk along the Seine River and explore the countryside. Sometimes he would spend all day outside and return home late at night exhausted but happy. He and his older brother Jacques were very close and shared a love for science and nature. Their father encouraged the boys by including them in his work at the laboratory of the Museum of Natural History.
Pierre’s father was a medical doctor, not interested in making lots of money. He was a compassionate idealist more concerned with justice and helping people. Following the Franco-German War in 1871, when a rebel uprising broke out in Paris, Dr. Curie did not join the fighting but converted his family’s quarters into a makeshift emergency room and sent his sons out to bring back the most seriously wounded. It was a time of terrible violence and the experience surely led to Pierre’s lifelong devotion to pacifism.
Pierre’s mother was a cheerful, resourceful woman, whose attentions and interruptions sometimes annoyed her son. She enjoyed conversation and did not seem to understand when he needed time and quiet to pursue his studies.
In his diary, Pierre later described his problem with being easily distracted. To prevent his mind from flying away “on every wind that blows, yielding to the slightest breath it encounters,” everything around him had to be absolutely still or else he had to turn his mind into “a humming top, the movement itself making me insensible to what is happening around me.” He also complained that “Whenever, rotating slowly, I attempt to speed up [my mind], the merest nothing – a word, a story, a newspaper, a visit – stops me from becoming a gyroscope or top, and can postpone or forever delay the time when, with enough speed I might be able to concentrate despite my surroundings.”
His intense focus and preparation allowed Pierre to graduate from the Sorbonne in only two years, with a degree in physics. When he was eighteen, he was able to avoid mandatory military service by agreeing to spend ten years working in public education, which he did as a lab assistant in the physics lab at the Sorbonne.
During this time, he and his brother Jacques worked closely together. They discovered piezoelectricity (creating electricity from pressing on crystals a certain way) in 1881 when Pierre was only 22. He did not meet Marie until 1894. Their work together on radioactivity began around 1897.
Pierre Curies’ unconventional education suited his temperament and interests well. He was able to pursue his own scientific inquiries at his own pace, with little interference from school authorities. His father was sensitive enough to provide Pierre with the resources he needed to succeed in his chosen field: books, laboratory, math tutor. But he also allowed the boy time and space for dreaming and thinking.
Brian, Denis. The Curies: A Biography of the Most Controversial Family in Science. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2005, Hoboken, New Jersey