Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Marie Curie - cyclist?

I am in the middle of a kind of Marie Curie kick it seems. After reading Julie Des Jardins' thought-provoking The Madame Curie Complex [affiliate link], I felt compelled to do my own research into the life and work of a woman who seems to have become more legend than anything else.

I am currently about halfway through the biography by Eve Curie, Madame Curie [affiliate link], and while I have had to put the book down for a while to process the heartbreak of Pierre's death, I keep going back to this photograph of the two of them with their prized bicycles.

The story we most often hear about Marie Curie is the one about her absolute dedication to her research and the endless hours she spent in her laboratory. These are certainly honorable, if super-human, traits worth celebrating, but I have to wonder why we so rarely hear about her more mundane and human moments? I am thoroughly fascinated by her research and the Eureka! moments as well as the years-long hard labor to prove her ideas. But I am equally fascinated to know how she and Pierre organized their home life, and what they did in their rare moments of relaxation. Maybe it's just a matter of human nature, but all while reading about the life and work of this remarkable woman, I am enjoying little pings of "hey, me too!' when I find threads of similarity between her life and mine.

This book does not disappoint in that regard. Eve shares all aspects of her mother's life in equal measure, showing us a more complete, relateable picture of this private, practical woman.
Marie loved the idea of her wedding, which was to be, in every detail of the great day, different from all other weddings. There would be no white dress, no gold ring, no "wedding breakfast." There would be no religious ceremony: Pierre was a freethinker and Marie, for a long time past, had ceased the practice of religion. There were no lawyers necessary, as the the marriage pair possessed nothing in the world -- nothing but two glittering bicycles, bought the day before with money sent as a present from a cousin, with which they were going to roam the countryside in the coming summer.
While I can appreciate the practical nature of Marie's wedding plans, and how it supports the romanticized picture of her single-minded focus, I want to know more about these bicycles. Fortunately, Eve Curie devotes several pages to each of the many trips Marie and Pierre took by bike throughout their short marriage, starting with their honeymoon.
The first days of their life together were picturesque: Pierre and Marie roamed the roads of the Ils-de-France on their famous bicycles. The the baggage straps they strung up a few clothes and two long rubberized cloaks which the rainy summer had forced them to buy. They lunched on bread and cheese, peaches and cherries, seated on the moss of some woodland glade. In the evening, they stopped at hazard in some unknown inn. 
They would often stop for short hikes, leaving their bikes in the care of a nearby farmer. As one might expect, the conversation often came back around to whatever research problem they were considering. For them, these roamings, though physically strenuous, were mentally relaxing.
During the fine weather they wandered about, stage by stage, as in the old days. For them "rest" meant, in 1898, exploring the Cévennes on bicycles; two years later they followed the coast of the Channel from Havre to St Valéry-sur-Somme, then they went off to the Isle of Noirmoutiers. In 1901 we see them at Pouldu, in 1902 at Aromanches, and 1903 at Le Tréport and afterward at St Trojean.
I am currently training for a long bike ride around Lake Tahoe in June, and spend several hours each weekend out cycling around Sonoma County with my beloved. While we are out there enjoying the sunshine and each others company, talking about work and life and whatnot, I cannot help but think of these two brilliant Nobel Laureates doing the same over a century ago, and share a bit of their pleasure.

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  1. That's a really cute anecdote :) and it's indeed a very original way for them to celebrate their marriage.

  2. I always imagine her hunched over something she's investigating. The idea of her being carefree and joyful on a bike is so gorgeous! Thank you for this!