Friday, February 6, 2015

Answer: Who else is in that family tree...?

The family tree of Jesse in a Chartres window

Sometimes you're lucky ... 

and you just know what to search for--other times, it's not quite as obvious.  This week's Challenge was a little of both.  

Our questions for this week begin with the extended family of the co-discovers of the piezoelectric effect.

Getting started isn't hard: 

     [ piezoelectric effect discover ] 

(Or even just a simple [ piezoelectric effect history ]).  With either query, we quickly find out that this side effect (aka "pyroelectricity") of twisting or hitting certain crystals was first noted by Pierre and Jacques Curie in 1880 and reported by them in the Bulletin of the Mineralogical Society of France.  

1.  Who ELSE in the Curie family worked in the sciences?  What areas are they best known for?  (And, for extra credit, who in this extended family had an affair with his PhD thesis advisor's wife? Just to keep things interesting, her granddaughter and his grandson were married years later.)  Can you draw a diagram to keep track of who's-who in this remarkable family? 
 As you know, Marie Curie (aka Marie Skłodowska Curie) and Pierre gained fame with their work on radioactivity and radioactive elements in particular.  (Such as radium and polonium.)  Recognizing in each other an intellectual and soul mate, they married in 1895, and together they turned out a remarkable body of research in chemistry and physics, leading to their Nobel prizes, the Davy Medal and so on.  

They were also the centerpiece of this remarkable family of incredibly accomplished people. 

When I started tracking down the cousins, uncles, and granddaughters, I realized that someone else had probably done this already.  So my next query was for: 

     [ Marie Curie family tree ] 

And it's not hard to find a bunch of them by doing an image search.  

Here's one from, which also features several other family trees of prestigious scientists (such as the James Clerk Maxwell family, the Alexander Graham Bell family, etc.)  

Curie family tree. By Ravi Singhal.

As you can see, Pierre and Jacques were brothers, both accomplished mineralogists and physicists.  Pierre married Marie, and they had two children, Irene and Eve.  

Marie with her daughters, Irene and Eve. (1908)
from: Dorset Life
Irene was quite a researcher herself, initially helping her mother, Marie, run x-ray units in the field during World War I, and then developing lab techniques for radiochemical research.  She also married smart, joining research forces with Frederic Joliot.  They then did significant research together and made major discoveries in chemistry and physics (e.g., creating radioactive nitrogen from boron--the transmutation of elements, the alchemists dream!).   

(Interestingly, Irene's PhD thesis advisor in physics was Paul Langevin. Paul's thesis advisor, in turn, was her father, Pierre Curie.   Remember Paul, he'll return in another role. )

Irene and Ferederic won a Nobel prize (chemistry) in 1935, while mother Marie won a joint Nobel prize with Pierre in 1903 (physics), and again, solo,  in chemistry (1911).  

Eve Curie, the youngest daughter of Pierre and Marie was a writer and pianist.  Her father, Pierre, was tragically killed when she was just 2 (run over by a horse cart), and she ultimately wrote a quite popular biography of her mother, Madame Curie, which won the third annual National Book Award for non-fiction.  The book was turned into a movie, with Greer Garson in the title role (and an uncredited Aldous Huxley as the screenwriter!).  

We have a couple other questions:  "Who had an affair with his PhD thesis advisor's wife?"  

Here, I liked Ramon's query:  

     [ Curie affair ]  

The Excelsior news of France,
with Marie Curie on the cover.  Scandal!
Following up on all of the pages this returns is a great way to spend an afternoon.  Not only do you discover that yes, Marie and Paul Langevin had a fairly torrid affair, but that it was splashed all over the front pages of scandal-driven newspapers of the time.  Even Einstein wrote to Marie telling her to ignore the trolls in the press about the affair.  

(I wish I could go into all the details of Marie Curie's life--but let me assure you, if you're looking for evidence that scientists can be as earthy and sexy as any pop star, check out any of the biographies of Marie Curie's life.  What a woman!)  

And of course, I learned by reading the biography of Paul Langevin that their Paul's grandson (Michel Langevin) and Marie's granddaughter (Hélène Langevin-Joliot) married to one another.  

Hélène is currently a professor of nuclear physics at the Institute of Nuclear Physics at the University of Paris and a Director of Research at the CNRS), while Michel Langevin used to work there as well.  

2.  It turns out that remarkable families seem to center on a particular theme or domain of interest.  The Bach family (for instance, Johann Sebastian, Carl Phillip Emmanuel, Johann Christoph Friedrich, etc etc) were synonymous with music from 1600 until 1800.  Can you find another remarkable family with 8 or more members who distinguished themselves in math?  (Or, if you prefer, some other area...)  

I liked Hans solution for this: 

     [ famous family mathematicians ] 

When I did this initially, I did the query:  [ family mathematics ] but was reminded that "family" is a technical term in mathematics, and has nothing whatsoever to do with people and family relationships.  So adding in the term "famous" is a great solution. 

As many Regular Readers pointed out, the Bernoulli family is an outstanding example of mathematicians and physicists that's impressive in its scope.  The Wikipedia article on the Bernoulli family is pretty amazing, listing 11 family members who made major contributions--including the Bernoulli differential equation, the Bernoulli distribution, and Bernoulli effect (for air moving through tubes of different sizes).  

Other Readers pointed out the Huxleys (a British family of which several members have excelled in scientific, medical, artistic, and literary fields), and the extended Darwin clan (two interrelated English families, descended from the prominent 18th-century doctor, Erasmus Darwin, and Josiah Wedgwood; the family includes Charles Darwin, at least ten Fellows of the Royal Society and several artists and poets).  

Search Lessons: 

This wasn't a difficult Challenge, but it was fun.  Who knew there could be such wonderful histories! 

For searching, this was largely about choosing the right terms, getting started, and then taking notes as you read along the way.  

1.  Use Images when searching for an inherently visual thing.  For instance, when I was looking for a family tree--Google Images took me right to a bunch of great examples of the Curie family tree.  

2.  Remember that you'll sometimes stumble across words that have unexpected technical meanings.  As I found in the above "family mathematicians" example, "family" has a meaning I hadn't expected, so I had to add in "famous" to limit the results to just those that are about famous, human families.  

Search on! 

1 comment:

  1. What really surprised me this time is that I somehow originally expected it to be a very techniqual search requiring some specialised sources. In fact it prooved to be a simple Google search based on good search terms. It's a very good lesson for me. Thank you.