In 1867, in the Russian city of Warsaw, Maria Skłodowska was born. Her parents, both teachers, had lost their wealth and property due to involvement in Polish nationalist movements. Maria and her siblings worked together to put each other through schools, Maria working as a governess. In 1891 she moved to Paris, where she was known as Marie, and pursued studies in science, earning a degree in physics in 1893, and continuing under a fellowship at the University of Paris to a second degree in 1894.
She began her career with a grant from Société d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale studying the magnetic properties of various steels. A friend introduced her to an instructor at École supérieure de physique et de chimie industrielles de la ville de Paris, because she was looking for more laboratory space. Though Pierre Curie did not have a large laboratory, he was able to find some space for Marie where she was able to begin work. You know where this story is going. They married on 26 July 1895.
In 1895 Wilhelm Roentgen discovered the existence of X-rays, though the mechanism behind their production was not yet understood. In 1896, while investigating phosphorescence in uranium salts, Henri Becquerel found the salts emitted particles with penetrating properties similar to X-rays, and named the property “Radioactivity”. The next year, J. J. Thomson isolated the electron and in doing so developed the “Plum Pudding Model”, which although precisely wrong, is a much better description than the Bohr model most people visualize when thinking of subatomic particles.
In December 1903, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, and Henri Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics, “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel”. Warsaw was now in Germany.
Albert Einstein formulated the idea of mass–energy equivalence in 1905, known in shorthand as E=mc². Following Pierre’s death in 1906, Marie went on to isolate radium as an element, and defined an international standard for radioactive emissions that was eventually named for her and Pierre, the curie. Despite her acceptance in French academia, she was still largely shunned because she was a woman, and in 1911 the French Academy of Sciences did not elect her to be a member. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded her with her second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, later that year. She was the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes, and to this day is the only person other than Linus Pauling to be awarded Prizes in more than one field. There was at this time a nation called Poland, and another called Ukraine.
During the first world war, she shifted her focus to medicine, developing mobile radiography units known as “petites Curies”. She also produced hollow needles containing ‘radium emanation’, a colorless, radioactive gas given off by radium, later identified as radon, to be used for sterilizing infected tissue.
On 4 July 1934, she died at the Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy from aplastic anemia believed to have been contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation. She had carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket, and was also exposed to X-rays from unshielded equipment while serving as a radiologist in field hospitals during the war. Although her many decades of exposure to radiation caused chronic illnesses (including near blindness due to cataracts) and ultimately her death, she never really acknowledged the health risks of radiation exposure. Because of their levels of radioactivity, her papers from the 1890s are considered too dangerous to handle and even her cookbook is highly radioactive. Her papers are kept in lead-lined boxes, and those who wish to consult them must wear protective clothing.
About the time of Marie’s death, Leó Szilárd realized the concept of the nuclear chain reaction, and patented his concept of an atomic bomb (British patent 630,726). By 1939, Szilárd and Einstein wrote to Franklin Roosevelt, warning that Germany was developing atomic bombs and suggesting that America secure its own research in the field. Roosevelt’s reaction was to initiate the Manhattan Project. The study of radioactive isotopes had moved from curiosity to medical applications to weapons development in only forty years. On 16 July 1945 the first controlled atomic detonation was conducted at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in New Mexico. Twenty one days later the second controlled detonation was conducted over Hiroshima Japan followed by the third three days later over Nagasaki Japan.
By 1963, the first treaty banning atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons (the fusion device, which was conceptualized in 1941 by Enrico Fermi and was developed in a sub-group of the Manhattan Project was detonated by America in 1951, the Soviet Union had detonated the first fusion device in 1949) was signed by the nuclear nations of the time, America, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. By 1968, those countries created the first Non Proliferation Treaty, in an attempt to curtail the spread of nuclear weapon technology, disarm nations possessing nuclear weapons, and redirect research towards peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Fail, Fail, and Fail, as indicated by the growing number of signatories to the treaty. There are presently eight nations overtly declaring themselves as “Nuclear powers” (U.S.A, U.K., the Russian Federation, France, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea). Israel has claimed “strategic ambiguity”, saying it would not be the first country to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the region, but refusing to otherwise confirm or deny a nuclear weapons program or arsenal. Nuclear weapons were “shared” with NATO countries Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey, Greece, and Canada. South Africa and Libya claim to have dismantled their nuclear weapons, and the weapons existing in former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine returned their warheads to Russia and those countries have signed non-proliferation agreements. Iran was a party to the treaty but was found in violation in 2003, its status as a nuclear power remains in dispute.
Nuclear deterrence began with the Szilárd Einstein letter to Roosevelt. It continues today with the threats from North Korea and Iran. It also continues with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Ukraine relinquished its nuclear weapons in 1994 as part of the Budapest memorandum (Budapest was under the control of the Soviet Union after an invasion in 1956). The first article of the memorandum reads “…the Russian Federation…reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine…to respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine”(emphasis mine). There are no Russians in Ukraine, they are all Ukrainian.
Within nations, a government disarms citizens before enslaving them. Between nations, one government disarms the other before invading it. There has been talk this blatant aggression by a former KGB colonel may lead to another cold war, let’s hope so. The alternative, a ground war that expands over Europe, is a prospect no one wants to consider.
The Ukraine is being held hostage by Vladimir Putin, a hot conflict would immediately effect natural gas supplies to Europe (although a recent report by Morgan Stanley indicating Belarus, Finland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria each receives more than 100% of their natural gas from Russia throws all data into question), long term affects would be contaminated by regional conflicts. The latest attempts at appeasement have been an international re-framing of the invasion, now referred to as an invasion of Crimea, which would allow Putin to stop without moving further into Ukraine. This week.
Vladimir doesn’t care. The only effective strike against Russia would be nuclear, and if that were to ever happen, it would be the last event in the history of what we continue to call “civilization”. On the other hand, maybe we’ve already missed our shot at being civilized, when we were presented with the power of nuclear physics, and chose to make bombs with it.