Quoting Marie Curie on her birthday

Today, November 7, is the birthday of the one woman scientist whose name is familiar to nearly everyone. Marie Skladowska Curie (1867-1934) is well worth celebrating for her achievements in both physics and chemistry, for which she was twice awarded the Nobel Prize, and also for her personal bravery. She built and drove mobile X-ray units to numerous front-line battlefields during World War I to aid wounded French soldiers.

Garrison Keillor saluted Mme. Curie today on The Writer's Almanac. "Be less curious about people," he quoted her, "and more curious about ideas."

A-Word-A-Day also cited some of Mme. Curie's philosophy today, without comment on her use of the word disinterested to mean free from selfish motives, not lack of curiosity: "Humanity also needs dreamers, for whom the disinterested development of an enterprise is so captivating that it becomes impossible for them to devote their care to their own material profit. Without doubt, these dreamers do not deserve wealth, because they do not desire it. Even so, a well-organized society should assure to such workers the efficient means of accomplishing their task, in a life freed from material care and freely consecrated to research."

Among my favorite passages from Mme. Curie's writings is the one that astronomer Annie Jump Cannon recorded in a notebook in 1922, while on an observing run in Arequipa, Peru. The quotation was neither an aphorism nor a political statement, but a memory of private moments in pure research: "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night. We then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles or capsules containing our products. It was really a lovely sight and always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights." Perhaps Miss Cannon saw her stars the same way.


Daily ritual

Part of my daily ritual entails reading an entry in Mason Currey's delightful book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. This morning, for example, I learned that the late Philip Larkin held a job as a librarian for most of his adult life, and wrote poetry in the evening, "after dinner and the dishes." Another of my daily rituals is listening to Garrison Keillor intone history notes and a poem in his pleasing baritone on "The Writer's Almanac." Today's poem happened to be by Philip Larkin. I thought, What are the odds of that? Currey's book describes the work habits of 161 individuals, only some of whom are poets, and Keillor draws on centuries' worth of verse. It was the kind of coincidence that opens a rational person such as myself to mystic possibilities.

Larkin's poem, called "Travellers," did the same. It evoked strangers on a train, and hinted at their potential destiny with each other, while they, "islanded in unawareness," hurtled to their destinations.