For roughly five years, Curie worked as a tutor and a governess. She used her spare time to study, reading about physics, chemistry and math. In 1891, Curie finally made her way to Paris where she enrolled at the Sorbonne. She threw herself into her studies, but this dedication had a personal cost. With little money, she found a cheap rental in a Paris attic. To keep warm during the Parisian winters, she would wear every piece of clothing she owned and survived on buttered bread and tea. Her health sometimes suffered because of her poor diet.
Curie completed her master's degree in physics in 1893 and earned another degree in mathematics the following year. Around this time, her superior work in physics won her a scholarship. A group of industrialists, the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry, paid her to do a study on different types of steel and their magnetic properties. Curie needed a lab to work in, and a colleague introduced her to French physicist Pierre Curie. He had the impressive title of Laboratory Chief at the Paris Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry. He had a lab and the facilities were poor, but he let Marie work there. Curie, about 10 years older than Marie, had made important scientific discoveries on magnetism and crystals. But he had never bothered to complete a doctoral thesis. A romance developed between the brilliant pair, and they became a scientific dynamic duo, and married the following year.
Marie and Pierre Curie were dedicated scientists and completely devoted to one another. At first, they worked on separate projects. She was fascinated with the work of Henri Becquerel, a French physicist who discovered that uranium casts off rays, weaker rays than the X-rays found by physicist Wilhelm Roentgen.
Curie took Becquerel's work a few steps further, conducting her own experiments on uranium rays. She discovered that the rays remained constant, no matter the condition or form of the uranium. The rays, she theorized, came from the element's atomic structure. She discovered that the strength of the rays that came out depended only on the amount of uranium in the compound. It had nothing to do with whether the material was solid or powdered, dry or wet, pure or combined with other chemical elements. If you had a certain amount of uranium, a certain number of uranium atoms, then you got a certain intensity of radiation. Nothing else made a difference. Normal properties, color or smell or hardness, changed according to how you treated a substance. Scientists of the time knew that such properties came from the way atoms combined with one another. The atoms themselves, most scientists believed, had all been created at the beginning of time, and could not possibly change. Marie puzzled over this, trying out every possible idea. Perhaps, she suspected, something was happening inside uranium atoms that gave rise to rays and not only inside uranium. Trying out various chemicals,…