Marie Curie's century-old radioactive notebook still requires lead box

Illustration for article titled Marie Curies century-old radioactive notebook still requires lead box

Marie Curie made some of the most significant contributions to science in the 20th century. And as most people already know, she did so at a great cost to her own health. What most people probably don't know, however, is that the radiation levels she was exposed to were so powerful that her notebooks must now be kept in lead-lined boxes.

It's true. And it's not just Curie's manuscripts that are too dangerous to touch, either. If you visit the Pierre and Marie Curie collection at the Bibliotheque Nationale in France, many of her personal possessions—from her furniture to her cookbooks—require protective clothing to be safely handled. You'll also have to sign a liability waiver, just in case.

Illustration for article titled Marie Curies century-old radioactive notebook still requires lead box

When you put it all into context, though, the radiation levels make perfect sense. Marie Curie was basically walking around with bottles of polonium and radium in her pockets all the time. She even kept capsules full of the dangerous stuff on her shelf. "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 of capsules containing our products," the Nobel Prize-winning scientist wrote in her autobiography. "It was really a lovely sight and one always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights."

As the Christian Science Monitor points out, the fact that the notebook and related paraphernalia are still radioactive a century later is nothing. The most common isotope of radium, the deadly stuff Curie carried in her pockets, has a half-life of 1,601 years. So don't expect to go digging through the Curie's library any time in this century, either.

Images via AP / Wellcome Trust

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Marie died in 1934 of aplastic anemia, thought to be caused by radiation exposure. Before her death she won the Noble Prize in Physics, and again in Chemistry, the first woman to win, the first to win twice, and the only person to win in multiple sciences. Her husband and collaborator Pierre was killed in a traffic accident in 1906.