Pierre Curie

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Pierre Curie

Pierre Curie was a French physicist, a pioneer in crystallography, magnetism, piezoelectricity and radioactivity, and co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903. He and his wife, Marie Curie, discovered radium and polonium in their investigation of radioactivity.

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Pierre Curie
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Pierre Curie

Born in Paris, France, Pierre was the son of Dr. Eugène Curie and Sophie-Claire Depouilly Curie. He was educated by his father, and in his early teens showed a strong aptitude for mathematics and geometry. When he was 16, he earned his math degree. By the age of 18 he had completed the equivalent of a higher degree, but did not proceed immediately to a doctorate due to lack of money. Instead he worked as a laboratory instructor.

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Pierre Curie
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Piezoelectric Quartz Electrometer

In 1880, Pierre and his older brother Jacques demonstrated that an electric potential was generated when crystals were compressed, i.e. piezoelectricity. To aid their work, they invented the Piezoelectic Quartz Electrometer. Shortly afterwards, in 1881, they demonstrated the reverse effect: that crystals could be made to deform when subject to an electric field. Almost all digital electronic circuits now rely on this in the form of crystal oscillators.

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Piezoelectric Quartz Electrometer
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Curie Point

Prior to his famous doctoral studies on magnetism, he designed and perfected an extremely sensitive torsion balance for measuring magnetic coefficients. Variations on this equipment were commonly used by future workers in that area. Pierre Curie studied ferromagnetism, paramagnetism, and diamagnetism for his doctoral thesis, and discovered the effect of temperature on paramagnetism which is now known as Curie's law. The material constant in Curie's law is known as the Curie constant. He also discovered that ferromagnetic substances exhibited a critical temperature transition, above which the substances lost their ferromagnetic behavior. This is now known as the Curie point.

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Curie Point
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Pierre Curie

Pierre formulated what is now known as the Curie Dissymmetry Principle: a physical effect cannot have a dissymmetry absent from its efficient cause. For example, a random mixture of sand in zero gravity has no dissymmetry (it is isotropic). Introduce a gravitational field, then there is a dissymmetry because of the direction of the field. Then the sand grains can ‘self-sort’ with the density increasing with depth. But this new arrangement, with the directional arrangement of sand grains, actually reflects the dissymmetry of the gravitational field that causes the separation.

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Pierre Curie
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Pierre and Marie Curie

In the spring of 1894 Curie met Marie Sklodowska; their marriage marked the beginning of a world-famous scientific achievement, beginning with the discovery of polonium and then of radium. The phenomenon of radioactivity, discovered (1896) by Henri Becquerel, had attracted Marie Curie's attention, and she and Pierre determined to study a mineral, pitchblende, the specific activity of which is superior to that of pure uranium. While working with Marie to extract pure substances from ores, an undertaking that really required industrial resources but that they achieved in relatively primitive conditions, Pierre himself concentrated on the physical study (including luminous and chemical effects) of the new radiations. Through the action of magnetic fields on the rays given out by the radium, he proved the existence of particles electrically positive, negative, and neutral; these Ernest Rutherford was afterward to call alpha, beta, and gamma rays. Pierre then studied these radiations by calorimetry and also observed the physiological effects of radium, thus opening the way to radium therapy.

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Pierre and Marie Curie
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Pierre Curie

Pierre and one of his students made the first discovery of nuclear energy, by identifying the continuous emission of heat from radium particles. He also investigated the radiation emissions of radioactive substances, and through the use of magnetic fields was able to show that some of the emissions were positively charged, some were negative and some were neutral. These correspond to alpha, beta and gamma radiation. The curie is a unit of radioactivity (3.7 x 1010 decays per second or 37 gigabecquerels) originally named in honor of Curie by the Radiology Congress in 1910, after his death.

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Pierre Curie
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Pierre and Marie Curie

Pierre and Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie and their son-in-law Frédéric Joliot-Curie were also physicists involved in the study of radioactivity. They also were awarded a Nobel prize for their work. The Curies' other daughter, Ève, wrote a noted biography of her mother. Pierre Curie died in a street accident in Paris on 19 April 1906. Crossing the busy Rue Dauphine in the rain at the Quai de Conti, he slipped and fell under a heavy horse drawn cart.

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Pierre and Marie Curie
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The crypt at the Panthéon in Paris

In April 1995 Pierre and Marie were enshrined in the crypt of the Panthéon in Paris.

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The crypt at the Panthéon in Paris
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Pierre Curie

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Pierre Curie
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