history,  science

Frédéric Joliot-Curie

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I was reading about Marie Curie last week, and am enjoying now reading about her son-in law, Frédéric Joliot. Many details of his life lend themselves to great discussions with children about radiation, World War II, and sexism.Fred Joliot Curie

When Irène Curie, daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie, married Frédéric Joliot she was already a published scientist, and she choose to keep her maiden name rather than take on what in her time and place would have been more acceptable: Irène Joliet-Curie (a compromise more celebrating of her maiden identity than many hyphenated names today where the maiden name becomes a sort of middle name!)  Her husband Fred was a scientist working in the same field as her – a field in which the Curie name was legendary. Had she been a man she could have easily extended her own name to her partner. If the Curies had a son, no one would have questioned his wife becoming a Curie too, even if that hypothetical wife would have been a scientist benefiting from the connection with the Curie family. Because Irène was the woman, Fred’s offering to take his wife’s name was met with skepticism and accusations of opportunism.  The book Grand Obsession: Madame Curie and her World by Rosalynd Pflaum records this:

Lew Kowarski, a close associate of the Atomic Commissariat, years later, claimed he pointed out to Fred that there as no need for him to assume the Curie name. Fred replied; Funny, you have a bee in your bonnet about it. You’re like my daughter. She’s always telling me: ‘Don’t call yourself a Curie.” After the war, Fred was known solely by the hyphenated name, which prompted one journalist to remark: “M. Frédéric Joliot-Curie is certainly a great man, but not sufficiently so, it seems, to be called simply Joliot.” The one constant in this whole affair is that, socially and academically, he was always Joliot and the couple was always known as “the Joliots.”

Frédéric has been working on nuclear fission, as a possible energy source, as WWII was approaching. In February 1940 he was involved in helping to arrange that the world’s supply of heavy water, available from a Norwegian company and actively pursued by the Germans, be smuggled into France instead. The head of the Norwegian company had been stalling selling the water to Germany because Germany was unwilling to say what it was to be used for and Fred explained to him how heavy water was relevant to nuclear fission. The heavy water was smuggled to France in twenty six seven litre containers, with the French Intelligence Agent overseeing the operation carrying a small container of cadmium given to him by Fred. If it seemed that the Germans were about to get their hands on the heavy water, the cadmium was to be poured a little bit into each container, so that the water would be rendered unusable.

When it was apparent that Paris was about to be captured by the Germans, Fred assigned his deputy director at the Collège du France the job of hauling the heavy-water to safety. Code-named Product “Z” it was taken first to a bank vault, then to a prison at Riom, and then taken to Britain by two of Fred’s acquaintances on a ship that hauled $15 million worth of industrial diamonds (in a raft, in case the ship itself were to be sunk). Of the three ships that left Bordeaux that day, two sank but the one with the heavy water and diamonds survived. When Fred was later interrogated by a German general as to what happened to the water he claimed it has been on one of the ill-fated ships.

As Fred was arranging for the heavy water to be deported, he was approached by the Count of Suffolk, a British liaison officer whose job included rounding up scientists to take to safety. He wanted Fred to leave France and promised to help Fred’s wife and children escape too, but Fred declined. Instead he returned to Paris to continue work.

The nearly finished cyclotron in the basement of Fred’s laboratory was of key interest to the Germans. Officers of the Heereswaffenamt, the administration of armaments for the German Army, had visited it in Fred’s absence and discussed taking it apart to ship East but decided against it because of the difficulty in dismantling, reassembling, and training new people on it. The Germans wanted the French to continue to work on their research with it.  Fred was allowed to reopen his lab with Wolfgang Gentner, an friend of his, as the German liaison officer between the lab and the Heereswaffenamt. Fred insisted that only basic science be done and nothing to contribute to the war effort.

One of the amazing and daring things Fred involved rescuing a friend of his. Paul Lanvegin was a well loved professor, a mentor to Fred, and Marie Curie’s ex-lover. He was also a known anti-fascist organizer before the war. He was arrested and taken to prison on October 30, 1940. He had been scheduled to give his first fall lecture on November 8th. Crowds gathered for a demonstration outside the lecture hall. The Gestapo locked the doors of the amphitheater.  Fred walked up to the doors, opened them with his own key, and then went onto the stage. The room filled quickly, and Fred announced that he would close his own lab and suspend his own classes until Professor Lanvegin was released from prison.

Wolfgang Gentner had just returned to Paris from fetching a piece of equipment to repair the cyclotron and argued with the Gestapo that having Lanvegin in prison was not worth holding up the cyclotron research. A compromise was made by which Langevin was removed from Paris to a small town where he remained under house surveillance.

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