If you think being the child of Nobel prize winning scientists comes with its own unique pressures, try being the child and grandchild of Nobel prize winning scientists. This could have been the reality of nuclear physicist, Hélène Langevin-Joliot. Instead she recalls that when her parents, Irène Curie and Frédéric Joliot, received word of being awarded the Nobel prize, she was more excited about her friends visiting her in a new home.
For Hélène, Marie Curie was a typical grandmother that loved to spend time with her grandchildren and they would take walks together while on family vacations. Never pushed into making a decision to study science by her parents she nonetheless developed a great love of physics and of doing physics and began her education only to be interrupted by World War II. As she was preparing to take her baccalaureate exams her parents decided that, due to her father’s resistance efforts against the German occupation of France, she, her mother, and brother needed to escape to Switzerland. Finishing her exams on June 5 the family took advantage of the D-Day invasion, which caused the German border guards to be distracted, to cross to safety.
Returning to France she continued her studies at the Collège de France earning her doctoral degree. During this time she was hired at the French National Centre for Scientific Research where she rose to the rank of director before her retirement. Her lab eventually move to the Institute at Orsay, which had been designed by her parents and her research turned to medium-energy nuclear reactions.
She worked as a professor of nuclear physics at the Institute of Nuclear Physics at the University of Paris where her research focus was on exotic nuclei and highly excited hole states in medium and heavy nuclei. Willing to share her personal history and family legacy, she gives talks about the Curies and authored the introduction to Radiation and Modern Life: Fulfilling Marie Curie’s Dream. As a member of the French government’s advisory committee she is active politically and is a vocal advocate for women in the sciences.
Written by Angela Goad