The Prairie: Beauty or Fear?

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Konza PrairieStunning, isn’t it? The Konza Prairie near Manhattan, Kansas, gives us a glimpse of the past. This is what settlers of European descent would have seen. I am awed by its beauty, shown here in late spring.

I must admit: I’m glad the soil was too shallow and rock for the plow, thus preserving this unique ecology of grasses (with deep, deep roots penetrating limestone), shrubs, and wildflowers, along with the galley forest near the waterways.

Wild prairie rose

Wild prairie rose

But I am a 21st century nature lover. If food were not a matter of going to a grocery store or a restaurant, would I still be enamored with this sight? It’s easy to forget our ancestors struggled for food. The line between starvation and plenty depended on the rain coming at the right times, the cattle staying well fed and healthy, and the grasshoppers not devastating the crops.

We and our ancestors would see a similar landscape, but how we felt about it could be very different.

Verbena

A type of verbena

Post-script: If you’re in Manhattan, Kansas, do see the Konza. It is unique in the truest sense of the word. And do yourself a favor and visit the Flint Hills Discovery Center to learn about the history and the science.

Photos by Randy Rendfeld

Medieval Misconception: Parents Did Not Bond with Their Babies

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The idea is plausible: Because so many medieval children died young – half didn’t make it to age 5 – parents did not become attached to their babies. In modern parlance, it’s a defense mechanism.

After all, this was an age of war and brutal justice. It just makes sense that medieval parents would hold off on affection until they could be more certain their child was going to live, right?

Not exactly. Paul the Deacon’s 783 epitaph for Charlemagne’s 40-day-old daughter Hildegard tells a different story: “Dear little maiden, you leave no little grief/Stabbing your father’s heart with a dagger.”

Medieval parents might have accepted the likelihood of burying at least one child, and it’s easy to imagine everyone knew someone who had lost a child. That sad reality might have made grieving parents feel less isolated.

But the epitaph proves that in the Dark Ages parents loved their kids, and even if the infant was baptized and the parents were certain they would see the child in paradise, death was as painful for them as it would be for us.

Baptism

A 16th century image of a baby being baptized after he was born of a dead mother (provided by Wolfgang Sauber GFDL via Wikimedia Commons).

The One Thing Worse Than Losing a Child

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During a childbirth scene in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, I had a choice: Should the baby be born alive or dead? The mother had a rare condition that endangered her life and put the baby’s chances of survival at 50 percent.

The deciding factor was the fate of the newborn’s soul. Medieval Christians believed everyone needed to be baptized to enter heaven, but did that belief extend to infants who died before birth?

That question bothered me so much I didn’t want to know. For an innocent to be denied paradise for all eternity was just too cruel, especially when the lack of baptism was beyond the parents’ control. So I researched what would happen if the midwife feared for a newborn’s survival and wrote the following:

“I have the child,” the midwife said. When she leaned back, blood covered her arms and chest. She cradled a listless newborn and the afterbirth.

“Another son,” the midwife said in a monotone.

“Good,” Gerhilda whispered.

The babe is not crying! Sunwynn stared at the infant. He was quiet when the midwife wiped his nose and mouth. A slap to the bottom was met with barely a whimper. Sunwynn winced. A few other women groaned.

“Daughter, hold the jasper amulet to the countess’s belly until it’s warm,” the midwife told an assistant.

The midwife cut the cord and placed the child in the basin she used to wash her hands. Three times, she used her cupped hand to pour water on the child’s head and muttered a Latin prayer. Sunwynn shuddered. There was only one reason a midwife would baptize a newborn.

Fast forward a few months after Ashes is published, and I am working on a script for my contribution to a midwifery panel discussion during the 2015 Historical Novel Society Conference, June 26-28. Since my talk will focus on the early medieval midwife’s spiritual duties, I could no longer avoid that question I so dreaded. For the answer, see my post on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Limbo

Dante meets the unbaptised in Inferno, illustrated by Gustave Doré 1861-1865 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

Pierre and Marie Curie Extract Radium – and Pay a High Price

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In this installment on the history of atom theory, physics professor (and my dad) Dean Zollman discusses Pierre and Marie Curie’s pioneering and dangerous work to isolate radium. – Kim

By Dean Zollman

Dean ZollmanPierre and Marie Curie had discovered radium by measuring the radioactivity of pitchblende, an ore from which uranium was extracted. The radioactivity of pitchblende was much greater than that of pure uranium. In fact they found two different levels of radioactivity which led them to conclude that two different elements – radium and polonium – were present in the ore. As I discussed last time, the conclusions were good enough for most physicists to believe the discovery, but the chemists wanted to see the isolated elements. So, Pierre and Marie Sklodowska Curie undertook the task of separating the elements, particularly radium, from the pitchblende.

Separating radium from the pitchblende was not easy. As I noted last time, they had a laboratory to work in, even if it was space considered not good enough for cadavers. Then, of course, they needed to obtain the ore.

The Curies looking at glowing radium

A painting by André Castaigne (1861–1929) which depicts the Curies looking at glowing radium. Pierre holding the glowing radioactive object is consistent with the way both of them handled this dangerous material. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In one way, that was easy. Large quantities of pitchblende were available from a mine in Bohemia owned by the Austrian-Hungarian government. The ore was considered useless because the uranium had already been extracted from it. The Curies could have the ore at no cost; they just needed to transport it from the mine to Paris. An anonymous benefactor, believed by some historians to have been Baron Edmond de Rothschild, provided the funds to transport the material from Bohemia to Paris. So, they obtained several tons of pitchblende, which was delivered in large sacks.

The process of separating the radium from the ore was a tedious application of chemistry. It involved many steps in which the ore was ground, dissolved in acids and other liquids, separated or filtered, and tested for radioactivity. Once they had a residue which was more radioactive than the material that they started with, they repeated the process. A reasonable description of the process is shown in an episode of The Six Experiments That Changed the World.

This video must have used material other than pitchblende. The actors in the video are much too cavalier in their handling of their “pitchblende.” Today’s safety standards for handling radioactive material would not allow the approach shown in the film. They also use modern equipment. For, example, Marie and Pierre did not have a Geiger counter. However, the video does represent reasonably well the way that the Curies handled pitchblende. They had no idea about the dangers of radioactive substances.

A particularly nasty element of which they knew nothing is radon. Today, we are told to test our basements for this radioactive gas because it is quite harmful. It is a product of the radioactive decay of radium. Because the processes that the Curies were using involved frequent boiling of the materials, they were without doubt releasing this radioactive gas and then breathing it.

They were able to get some help, particularly from André Debierne and industrial firm, Central Chemical Products Company, which sold some of the scientific instruments invented by Pierre. The company took on some of the initial steps in the extraction with Marie concentrating on the final steps. After three years of tedious work, they were able to obtain one-tenth of a gram of radium chloride from about one ton of pitchblende.

Conducting this research was not the Curies’ only effort. Both of them were teaching. In addition, in 1897 Marie gave birth to their first daughter, Irene.

"Radium Therapy" ad

Many products purported to offer cures using radioactivity. In spite of the claims in the advertisement drinking radioactive water is not the path to great health. (Public domain via Wikipedia)

Both the hazards and benefits of radioactivity were quickly discovered. After hearing of a couple of burns incurred by other scientists, including Henri Becquerel, Pierre taped some radioactive barium to his arm. The result was a red burn that took 52 days to heal. By this time both Marie and Pierre were noticing that their fingers were sometimes hardened and painful. Some of these experiences led to experiments about the health benefits of radioactivity. Reports of cures or reduction in tumors were published. Many good books and web pages can provide much detail on the how radium and other radioactive elements were used and mostly misused in the early 20th century, so I will not pursue that topic further. Instead, I will focus on a few stories about the Curies.

What’s the Source of Radiation?

Caricature of Pierre and Marie Curie

Caricature of Pierre and Marie Curie published in Vanity Fair on December 22, 1904. (Julius Mendes Price, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

On the scientific side was the question of where the radioactive particles came from. Were they somehow emitted from the atom or did the atom do something to its surroundings and cause them to be created there? At the time of this discussion, the nucleus had not been discovered (more about that next time), so everyone talked of the atom as the smallest unit of an element. Ernest Rutherford took the view that these radioactive emissions were coming from the atom. Pierre Curie argued in favor of the radium atom causing the emissions to come from the surrounding material. Of course, neither of them had any experimental evidence for his point of view. Eventually, Pierre came around to Rutherford’s view, but until much later no evidence was available to support either of them.

Pierre and Marie Curie were nominated for the Nobel Prize for the first two years that it was given. However, they were passed over. In the third year of the prize, a rather strange event happened. Four members of the French Academy of Science sent a letter to the Nobel Committee in which they gave all of the credit for isolating radium to Pierre. They nominated Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel for the prize and omitted Marie.

The committee that considers the nominations is supposed to work in strict confidence. However, one member of the committee, Mangus Mittag-Leffler, was a strong supporter of women in science. So, he wrote Pierre to tell him of this pending injustice. Pierre responded in such a way that the committee felt compelled to include Marie. The 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to both Curies and Becquerel. The citation was written was written very cleverly so that the Curies received the prize “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel.”

The 1903 citation did not mention the chemical separation of radium. That deliberate omission opened the way for Marie to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.” Thus Marie Sklodowska Curie became the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize and the first person to receive two prizes. (The second woman to receive a Nobel Prize was Marie and Pierre’s daughter Irene.)

The lack of caution in handling radioactive material greatly affected both of the Curies. They were too ill to attend the Nobel ceremony in 1903. The illness came and went, so in the summer of 1905, they felt well enough to travel to Stockholm where Pierre gave a Nobel lecture. However, he was soon feeling bad again.

On April 19, 1906, Pierre was walking in the rain. Apparently, he was not paying attention to traffic and walked in front of a horse-drawn wagon. He was killed instantly when the rear wheel of the wagon struck his head. Some historians believe that radiation poisoning contributed to his weakness. Thus, he was unable to avoid the fatal blow once he had accidently stepped in front of the wagon.

Marie was devastated and took a long time to recover from Pierre’s death. Eventually she did continue the research that she and Pierre had shared.

Marie Curie and her two daughters

Marie Curie, and her two daughters, Eve and Irene, in 1908 (Image from Wellcome Library, London, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Part of the War Effort

In addition to her research, she provided a critical service during World War I. She learned that soldiers’ lives could be save if only X-ray equipment were available at or near the front. To address this need, she developed portable X-ray units.

For the first one, she received a gift from the Union of the Women of France. With this money, she purchased a Renault car and had it converted into an ambulance. She then had X-ray equipment installed in the car. She personally drove this vehicle to locations near the front lines, frequently accompanied by her daughter Irene. She obtained about 20 other vehicles and outfitted them in a similar way. The X-rays provided by the equipment in these vehicles, called “little Curies,” have been credited with saving the lives of thousands of wounded soldiers.

Marie Curie driving a little Curie

Marie Curie driving a little Curie during World War I. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Marie’s work in radioactivity and its medical applications continued after the war. You can find many books, web pages, and videos about her. One of the most famous is a biography by her second daughter, Eve. If you are interested in more information, just search. A good short biography of both Curies is on the Nobel Prize website.

While the Curies were undertaking their work, a couple of other major contributions to our understanding of matter were being developed. The beginnings of quantum physics were under way as well as the use of radioactivity to probe deeply into the atom. In the next post, I will take a look at probing the atom and the building of a model of the nuclear atom. After that, we will back up a little in time and consider some of the early ideas in quantum physics.

Dean Zollman is university distinguished professor of physics at Kansas State University where he has been a faculty member for more than 40 years. During his career he has received four major awards — the American Association of Physics Teachers’ Oersted Medal (2014), the National Science Foundation Director’s Award for Distinguished Teacher Scholars (2004), the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Doctoral University Professor of the Year (1996), and AAPT’s Robert A. Millikan Medal (1995). His present research concentrates on the teaching and learning of physics and on science teacher preparation.

Previously

What Are Things Made of? Depends on When You Ask.

Ancient Greeks Were the First to Hypothesize Atoms

The Poetry of Atoms

Atom Theory in Ancient India

Religion, Science Clashed over Atoms

Medieval Arabic Scholarship Might Have Preserved Scientific Knowledge

Rediscovering a Roman Poet – and Atom Theory – Centuries Later

Reconciling Atom Theory with Religion

Did Atom Theory Play a Role in Galileo’s Trouble with the Inquisition?

Did Gifted Scientist’s Belief in Atoms Led to His Obscurity?

Does Atom Theory Apply to the Earthly and the Divine?

A Duchess Inspired by Atoms

Separating Atoms from Atheism

Isaac Newton: 300 Years Ahead of His Time

Issac Newton and the Philosopher’s Stone

When Chemistry and Physics Split

Redefining Elements

Mme Lavoisier: Partner in Science, Partner in Life

With Atoms, Proportionality and Simplicity Rule

Despite Evidence of Atoms, 19th Century Skeptics Didn’t Budge

Mission of the First International Scientific Conference: Clear up Confusion

Rivalry over the First Periodic Table

The Puzzle of Dark Lines amid Rainbow Colors

The Colorful Signature of Each Element

Light Waves by the Numbers

Even Scientific Dead Ends Can Contribute to Knowledge

Discovery of the Electron Took Decades and Multiple Scientists

‘Wonders of the X-ray’

The Accidental Discovery of Radioactivity

Marie Curie: A Determined Scientist

When Your Manuscript Needs Surgery

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The clichés about cutting your manuscript are violent. “Murder your darlings.” “Shoot your pets.” But they convey the agony of this part of the editing process.

I’ve done this with both The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. After polishing and polishing and polishing again, I had drafts that were 125,000 to 150,000 words. They needed to be closer to 100,000.

Medieval scissors

From the 1916 Nordisk familjebok (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Every writer has their own process. What I am about to share is what worked for me. First, I used “Save As” to preserve the lengthy version. It’s an emotional crutch, a way to calm the voice whimpering, “What if I don’t like it post-surgery?”

And then I told myself the following:

Can this conversation be shorter? Skipping everyday pleasantries and eliminating echoes in conversation makes the section tighter and can add tension to dialogue.

This looks familiar. I found quite a few places where I was repeating information I said a few chapters ago. One passage got cut, and it was not always the later one.

Only one POV, please. I’ll admit I’m a reformed head-hopper and now feel more strongly than someone who’s never sinned. In addition to shortening a passage, one point of view per scene helps the reader stay within the dream. If the thoughts inside the other person’s head are that important, they can be conveyed through dialogue or body language or appear when it’s their turn to speak.

Do we need all these characters? I found out that some could be disappeared without harming the story. Hruodland, the hero of Cross and Dragon, originally had two brothers. In the final version, he has one. In Ashes, one of Leova’s masters had a wife; in the final version, he is widowed. I’ve had extremely near-sighted characters in drafts of both books because I wanted to portray people like me who didn’t have access to glasses or contacts, but I let them go because they were not needed.

In my two published novels, most of my characters are fictitious. I am facing more difficulty with historic people. So far, all 10 of Charlemagne’s children (at that time) will appear in Lady Queen Fastrada. But I can understand a writer deciding to consolidate characters for the sake of the story, as long as they confess to their liberties in an author’s note.

Does this scene, even though it was built on careful research, advance the story? If the answer is no, put it under the knife, no matter how pretty it is or how hard you worked on it. Don’t think your research will go to waste. I used my research for a deleted falconing scene in Cross and Dragon—one that got good responses from critique partners—for one in Ashes.

Am I just showing off my research? The reviewers of my books say they enjoy the details I include in my novels. Details help transport readers back in time and make the story seem real. But I have cut some out if they are more for decoration than storytelling. My biggest mistake in the early drafts of Cross and Dragon is that I wanted to prove my intelligence and hard work. I had a family of slaves captured during a war in Aquitaine in one of those drafts, but to include them would have made the story bloated and distracted too much from the hero and heroine. Instead, they became Saxons in Ashes.

Cutting the manuscript was painful both times, but I am happy with the results. The pacing improved and the stories became more focused, moving on a steady path rather than meandering.

Ruthless? Yes. Bad Wife? No.

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In the legend of Saint Kilian’s martyrdom, seventh century Thuringian Duchess Geilana is portrayed as a vengeful woman who wants to hold on to her power.

But could there be more to this story? Could Kilian have urged Duke Gozbert, a convert to Christianity, to separate from his wife for reasons besides than canon law? (Gozbert had married his brother’s widow, and in the eyes of the Church, they were spiritual siblings.)

Kilian did not accuse Geilana of infidelity or some other bad behavior. Nor did he bring up consanguinity for two years.

If we are to believe legend, Kilian waited because he wanted Gozbert to be solid in his faith before asking him to make such a sacrifice, and it took great effort for Gozbert to agree to set his wife aside.

From the 19th century Costume of All Nations

From the 19th century Costume of All Nations

But Kilian could have other motives. Geilana was in a position of power. A queen, duchess, or countess was the equivalent of a chief of staff and business officer. She could control access to her husband and was responsible for the treasury. If Geilana refused to convert from her pagan beliefs or argued against donating land to the Church, she could obstruct Kilian’s work.

The above is a historical novelist’s speculation. The first time we hear of Geilana is when she orders the assassin of Kilian and his companions, a typical tactic among early medieval rulers. Another favorite, from Byzantium to Francia to Rome, was blinding.

But this time, she paid a high price for dispatching an enemy. See Unusual Historicals for a Dark Ages story of martyrdom and madness.

Poetry: A Bright Spot in the Dark Ages

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When I read Alcuin’s acrostic poem, “The Holy Cross,” I get the feeling that maybe the Dark Ages weren’t as dark as they are often portrayed.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m under no illusion that I would want to live in a time of widespread poverty, warfare, disease, and superstition. But “The Holy Cross” reminds me that even with these obstacles, people possessed intellect and sought beauty. To craft a poem that can be read line by line as well as a cross within a diamond within a square requires sophistication.

Visit English Historical Fiction Authors for more about this example of early medieval intellect.

Manuscript dedication

Raban Maur (left), supported by Alcuin, dedicates his work to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons).

Marie Curie: A Determined Scientist

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In this installment of the history of atom theory, physics professor (and my dad) Dean Zollman introduces us to Pierre and Marie Curie. Marie had humble beginnings, and she and her husband often worked under less than ideal circumstances. – Kim

By Dean Zollman

Dean ZollmanAs I mentioned last time, Becquerel’s discovery of “rays” coming from uranium fell rather flat on the scientific community. However, very quickly one of the most famous couples in the history of science – Pierre and Marie Sklodowska Curie – conducted research that changed how the world looked at matter and the emissions from several elements. We will take a brief look at their story in this and the next post. Many books and websites are devoted to the Curies, so if you find this brief introduction interesting, search on their names.

Marie Curie at 16

Marie Curie at 16 (public domain)

Marie Sklodowska (1867-1934) grew up in Russian-occupied Poland. She was an excellent student in secondary school, but at that time, Polish universities did not admit women. Her goal was to move to Paris so that she could continue her education. However, she could not afford the move. So, she worked for several years as a governess to obtain enough money to travel to Paris in 1891 and enter the Sorbonne. For most of her student days, she lived in a six-floor walkup, unheated attic. She had little money, and it is said that she fainted in the university library due to the lack of food. However, she persevered in her studies. In 1893, she graduated as the top student in physics. A year later, she was the second student in mathematics. Her plan had been to return to Poland and become a teacher. However, romance got in the way.

Pierre Curie

Pierre Curie. Iconographic Collections (Creative Commons BY 4.0)

Pierre Curie (1859-1906) was the son of a Parisian physician. He showed an aptitude for science at an early age and was conducting groundbreaking research before he was 20. Much of his early work was on magnetism. In 1880, he and his brother Jacques (1856–1941) discovered that an electric current would be created when certain crystals were deformed.

More importantly for his later work with Marie, they determined that the inverse was also true: These crystals could be deformed when a current was passed through them. They named this phenomenon piezoelectricity. His work in magnetism also led to several discoveries including that the magnetism of a material is inversely related to it temperature. (You can destroy a magnet by heating it.) Today, this principle is still called Curie’s Law.

A Fateful Introduction

To help pay for her education, one of Marie’s professors arranged a job for her to measure the magnetic properties of some materials. (Today we call this type of work undergraduate research; then, it was a way to put bread on the table in an unheated attic.) But she did not have a laboratory in which to do this work.

A professor arranged an introduction to a researcher who was working in magnetism – Pierre Curie. The professor thought that Pierre could provide space in his lab for Marie’s work. Unfortunately, Pierre’s laboratory was little more than a cubby hole, so he could not provide the space. However, for both of them this introduction was a life changing event.

Neither Pierre nor Marie had much interest in the opposite sex. Pierre has been quoted as saying that relationships with women took time away from doing science and thus were unnecessary distractions. Before leaving Poland, Marie had been involved in an ill-fated romance. Her beau’s family had rejected her because of her low social status.

However, Pierre and Marie seemed to hit it off immediately. Both were dedicated scientists and intellectual equals. With that as a foundation, their connection to each other grew.

They were married in 1895. By then, Marie had begun her research on magnetism, so she chose a wedding dress that could be worn in the laboratory after she returned from their honeymoon. The honeymoon was a bicycle trip during which there were apparently many discussions about magnetism.

Upon returning, Marie continued her measurements. As we have seen in previous posts, scientific discoveries were occurring quickly in the late 1890s. Wilhelm Roentgen discovered x-rays at the end of 1895. In an attempt to learn more about the x-rays, Henri Becquerel accidently discovered another form of radiation in 1896. About this time, Marie finished the work on magnetism and needed to choose a topic for her doctoral dissertation.

Let’s Measure These Rays

Pierre, Irene and Marie Curie,

Pierre, Irene and Marie Curie (Public domain)

Marie’s life had been further complicated by the birth of their first daughter, Irene, and the death of Pierre’s mother. Nevertheless Marie was intent on balancing family life and pursuing her PhD. Because a majority of the scientific discussion at the time focused on Roentgen’s discovery and very few people seemed interested in Becquerel’s work, Pierre suggested that Marie might find Becquerel rays a fruitful and less crowded pursuit.

Becquerel had discovered that these rays caused photographic plates to be darkened, but he had not made quantitative measurements. He had also noticed that the rays were able to cause electrically charged objects to discharge. A natural conclusion was that one could measure the amount of rays being emitted with an electrical device.

However, the current was very small, so one needed a device to measure very low currents. Pierre and Jacque had invented just such a device – an electrometer using piezoelectricity. The electrometer has two metal plates separated by a small distance and connected to a battery. Because the metal plates are separated by air, no current flows in the device. However, a material that emits electrically charged particles will knock electrons off the air atoms. These electrons will create a current and cause a rotation in the crystal. More particles from the material results in a greater current. Thus, by comparing currents they could compare the relative amount of emissions from different substances. (I cheated and explained the device using a concept that was not known the Curies – electrons in atoms.)

The apparatus for conducting the measurements of radioactivity. The dots above plate B represent the radioactive material. The quartz crystal is labeled Q. More details (in German) at Wikimedia. By Marie Curie (public domain)

At first the device yielded results that were no better than previous ones. When Pierre improved the piezoelectric component, sensitivity improved greatly. So, an excellent measurement of the activity could be determined from Pierre’s device.

Later, Marie coined the term radioactivity to describe the activity of the material. By placing some of the material that emitted Becquerel’s rays in the gap between the two metal plates, they could compare the radioactivity of different materials by measuring the rotation of the crystal. However, this device was not easy to work with. It took Marie 20 days to learn how to make accurate measurements.

Newly Discovered Elements

Eventually, Marie was able to measure the activity of pure uranium. She used this measurement as the standard with which she compared all others. She found that most materials were not radioactive. Her first discovery was that thorium was radioactive.

Then, came a major breakthrough; she placed an ore, pitchblende, into the measuring apparatus. Pitchblende is the ore that contains uranium. But the pitchblende showed a much higher activity than uranium or thorium. Something in addition to uranium and thorium must have been present in pitchblende.

With many tedious measurements, Marie was able to discern that in the ore two different radioactive elements must be present. She named the first one polonium after her native Poland and the second, radium. This was the first time that elements had been discovered based on properties other than chemistry.

Pierre and Marie Curie in the laboratory.

Pierre and Marie Curie in the laboratory. Iconographic Collections (Creative Commons BY 4.0)

Physicists of the late 19th century were willing to accept the discovery of the new elements, but chemists claimed that this was a theoretical discovery. No one had yet isolated either polonium or radium and held a pure substance in his or her hands. By now Pierre had decided that the research in radioactivity was much more fruitful and interesting than his other research, so he joined Marie in a full-time effort. He would look at the physical properties while Marie would handle the chemistry. Their plan was to isolate radium from the pitchblende in which it was located.

First they needed a place to work. The university could offer very little space but finally allowed them to use a shed next to a courtyard. At one time, it had been used for dissection classes of medical students. However, the roof leaked, it was very drafty, and it had a dirt floor. The university had decided that the shed was unfit for cadavers and had moved them elsewhere. But it was all that the Curies could use, so they took it.

Their next step was long, tedious, and dangerous. We will take it up next time.

Modern Variations of Pierre’s Electrometer

  • This electrometer was a simplified version of a detector for radioactive particles called the Geiger counter. Charged particles enter the tube, knocked electrons off atoms and thus created a current. Through a series of electronic pulses, the Geiger counter clicks when a particle passed through the tube. You will frequently see this counter in old sci-fi movies. (In a few months, we will meet Hans Geiger and see why he was motivated to invent such as device.)
  • The smoke detector in your home works like the inverse of Curie’s electrometer. Inside the smoke detector is a very small radioactive source. The charged particles coming from the source knocks electrons off atoms. These electrons move in an air gap in a circuit. Thus, a current is present in the detector. When smoke enters, it absorbs the charged particles, and the current stops. When the current stops, the electronics in your smoke detector sets off the alarm.

All images via Wikimedia Commons.

Dean Zollman is university distinguished professor of physics at Kansas State University where he has been a faculty member for more than 40 years. During his career he has received four major awards — the American Association of Physics Teachers’ Oersted Medal (2014), the National Science Foundation Director’s Award for Distinguished Teacher Scholars (2004), the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Doctoral University Professor of the Year (1996), and AAPT’s Robert A. Millikan Medal (1995). His present research concentrates on the teaching and learning of physics and on science teacher preparation.

Previously

What Are Things Made of? Depends on When You Ask.

Ancient Greeks Were the First to Hypothesize Atoms

The Poetry of Atoms

Atom Theory in Ancient India

Religion, Science Clashed over Atoms

Medieval Arabic Scholarship Might Have Preserved Scientific Knowledge

Rediscovering a Roman Poet – and Atom Theory – Centuries Later

Reconciling Atom Theory with Religion

Did Atom Theory Play a Role in Galileo’s Trouble with the Inquisition?

Did Gifted Scientist’s Belief in Atoms Led to His Obscurity?

Does Atom Theory Apply to the Earthly and the Divine?

A Duchess Inspired by Atoms

Separating Atoms from Atheism

Isaac Newton: 300 Years Ahead of His Time

Issac Newton and the Philosopher’s Stone

When Chemistry and Physics Split

Redefining Elements

Mme Lavoisier: Partner in Science, Partner in Life

With Atoms, Proportionality and Simplicity Rule

Despite Evidence of Atoms, 19th Century Skeptics Didn’t Budge

Mission of the First International Scientific Conference: Clear up Confusion

Rivalry over the First Periodic Table

The Puzzle of Dark Lines amid Rainbow Colors

The Colorful Signature of Each Element

Light Waves by the Numbers

Even Scientific Dead Ends Can Contribute to Knowledge

Discovery of the Electron Took Decades and Multiple Scientists

‘Wonders of the X-ray’

The Accidental Discovery of Radioactivity

The Complex Reality of Early Medieval Slavery

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Costumes of slaves or serfs

Costumes of slaves or serfs, from the sixth to the 12th centuries, from the 19th century Manners, Custom and Dress During the Middle Ages and During the Renaissance Period, by Paul Lacroix (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

Let me get one thing out of the way: Slavery is evil. No one has the right to own another person and do whatever they want to them.

But early medieval times present uncomfortable complexities to this tolerant 21st century American. Some slaves were better off than their free counterparts. Servants in a noble house were more likely to eat, sleep in a sheltered space, and have decent clothing, but they were more vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.

A peasant’s life was uncertain, especially when it came to food. A bad harvest in the fall meant famine in the winter. Poverty was so widespread that the Church differentiated between killing a baby for the inability to provide for them and to hide a sin.

These tensions come into play throughout The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, where a free Saxon mother and her two children are betrayed by relatives and sold into slavery. In this excerpt, the heroine Leova considers an opportunity.

Emptying the ashes into a clay pot, she held her breath. If she and her children accompanied Naimes to Paderborn, they could escape slavery!

Trying to keep her hands steady, she scooped more ashes. Possibilities flooded into her imagination. Deorlaf could claim his farm and get his vengeance on Ealdgyth and her sons. She and Deorlaf could find a husband for Sunwynn.

Was freedom in Eresburg worth the risk? They would have to travel through the forest, risking demons, nixies, dwarves, and other creatures. If they were captured during the escape attempt, they could be maimed or killed.

Leova had little to complain of in Nevers. Clad in her lady’s castoffs, Sunwynn wore dresses prettier than any peasant’s, and even Leova’s and Deorlaf’s undyed brown woolen garb was better than what she’d had in Eresburg. And other than Lent and some fasts for Christian holy days, she and her children never went hungry. Eresburg held no such certainty.

She frowned, ashamed at considering comfort before honor. That comfort would not last forever, not for Sunwynn. Gerhilda would take Sunwynn with her to Le Mans when she married Pinabel.

Memories of Pinabel’s cruelty—the starving, the threats of rape—made her shudder. They had to take the risk and escape. Otherwise, their chance for justice would be lost, and Sunwynn would be at Pinabel’s mercy.

Why Women’s History: A More Complete Picture

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In recent research, I came across another example an eighth century woman who tried to influence the events around her and protect her child. Chiltrude, daughter of the mayor of the palace, the most powerful man in Francia, caused a scandal when she defied her family’s wishes, ran off with the duke of Bavaria, and bore his son before the year ended.

She will someday have her own post, maybe her own novel if I can pull it together. But today I want use her as an example to discuss something else: why we need Women’s History Month.

In too many minds, women’s history starts with the Suffragettes in the 19th century or even the feminist movement in the 1960s. Of course, I am grateful for the Suffragettes and the feminists, but I worry that women of the past are seen merely as victims rather than full human beings who contributed to their societies – and tried to decide their own fates.

I turn to eighth century Francia because that is the period I’ve been studying for several years. True, arranged marriages for brides as young as 12 or 13 make this era less than ideal, and men did try to divorce unfruitful wives. But that is only part of the reality.

Women had responsibilities beyond wife and mother. The queen’s role, for example, was “to release the king from all domestic and palace cares, leaving him free to turn his mind to the state of his realm,” according to the ninth-century treatise The Government of the Palace. In an age when the personal and political were intertwined, the queen was the guardian of the treasury, and she controlled access to her husband. When houseguests were foreign dignitaries, royal hospitality was key to international relations. So, she was something of a treasurer, chief of staff, and diplomat.

Readers of this blog will know Chiltrude is not the only example of a brave woman who took charge. Here are a few others I’ve encountered in research:

  • Statue of Bertrada

    A statue of Bertrada by Eugène Oudiné in the Jardin du Luxembourg (LPLT / Wikimedia Commons)

    Queen Bertrada was King Pepin’s full partner as they seized the kingdom of Francia in a bloodless coup. After he died, she became a diplomat whose most important mission was peace within her own country. Charles (today called Charlemagne) and Carloman each inherited half the kingdom, and Bertrada needed to keep the rivalry between her sons, ages 17 and 20, from escalating to civil war.

  • Gerberga, Carloman’s widow, was not about to let her toddling sons lose their kingdom without a fight after Charles seized his late brother’s lands. Likely a teenager, Gerberga took the risky journey of crossing the Alps with two little boys in tow and sought the aid of Desiderius, the Lombard king furious over Charles’s divorce from his daughter. (Royal relations were complicated.)
  • Showing a special courage, Sts. Lioba, Thecla, Walburga, and other nuns answered Saint Boniface’s call to strengthen the church on the Continent. They left the security of their abbey of Wimbourne in today’s England to undertake a dangerous journey and live among strangers in a far-away land.

The reason we need Women’s History Month is that it provides context. The intent is not to denigrate the achievements of men but rather provide a complete picture of the past.

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