Villani studied at the École Normale Supériere in Paris. He received a master’s degree in numerical analysis from Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris in 1996 and a doctorate in from the University of Paris Dauphine in 1998. From 2000 to 2010 he was a professor of mathematics at the École Normale Supériere in Lyon, and in 2010 he became a professor of mathematics at the University of Lyon.
But golden possibilities shone amid the tinsel and hokum. In 1900 Pierre had attached a tube of radium to his arm for ten hours. Ève Curie would write, “To his joy, a lesion appeared.” The burn took weeks to heal, and the very severity of the wound paradoxically suggested the good that radium could do, for it promised strong medicine against cancer. The Curies experimented on small animals, and soon showed significant success with human patients. However, as Goldsmith points out, until the 1930s pure radium was so scarce and costly that its use against cancer was uncommon. While radium itself has now fallen out of therapeutic favor, radiation therapy is now of course a mainstay of cancer treatment.
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So the ordeal — for an ordeal it was — got underway. After a few months of further work it became apparent that radium would be separated, seen, and weighed more easily than polonium; it also became clear that an immensity of pitchblende was necessary to yield any appreciable amount of radium. The Curies needed more work space, and they needed an open-handed donor to provide them with tons of pitchblende. The Sorbonne, customarily forthcoming with facilities for importunate scientists, turned down their request. The School of Physics and Chemistry could offer the Curies only a former cadaver lab that had fallen into desuetude, broiling in summer, freezing in winter, leaking when it rained or snowed. They took it. Goldsmith cites the disbelief of the Nobel laureate in chemistry Wilhelm Ostwald that anything serious could be accomplished there: “It looked like a stable or potato cellar and if I had not seen the worktable with the chemistry equipment I would have thought it was a hoax.” As for the pitchblende, Pierre persuaded the Academy of Sciences of Vienna to convince the Austrian government to give them a virtual mountain of the apparently useless industrial residue for free; he also enlisted Baron Edmond de Rothschild to pay the freight, which the generous and far-sighted Baron did several times over the following four years.
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Radium presented grave dangers, however. The patent-medicine radium cure-alls were generally diluted hundreds of thousands of times in some bromide or other, but the radioactivity remained uncommonly strong, and it could do immense harm. A prominent American industrialist hooked on the putative restorative powers of the miracle elixir Radithor saw his face cave in from cancer of the jaw. Factory girls in New Jersey painting radium watch dials, who licked their brushes to put a finer point on them, died of radiation poisoning. People who definitely ought to have known better were not careful, and were not immune. Amputation, blindness, and sterility plagued key researchers. The Curies themselves understood that radiation could do serious damage but somehow did not believe it would damage them. The facts proved otherwise, though to the end the Curies did not connect their physical agonies with their mental triumphs. Redniss writes, “The powers of radium with which they were so enamored — Marie had taken to sleeping with a little jar by her pillow — were steadily corroding their bones, straining their breathing, burning their skin. Their entire lab was toxic.... Radioactivity had made the Curies immortal. Now it was killing them.”
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hen a month after Pierre’s death the Sorbonne offered Marie the opportunity to take over his duties — though not yet his professorial chair, an honor that would come two years later — in her diary she informed her departed husband of her acceptance, which would enable her to continue his work. Her first lecture in his stead, to a packed auditorium that November, was expected to be a tearjerker. In fact it was an emotionless summation of the great leap forward in physics over the past twelve years. Goldsmith observes, “Few noted that her lecture had started at the exact place Pierre Curie’s final lecture had left off.” To her diary, and to Pierre, Marie confided afterward her persistent despondency; only the duties of motherhood and the hope that her work would live up to his example kept her going.