Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Gossip from a hundred years ago

Last week I visited Marie Curie's birth house in Warsaw. Talking about it with relatives, I learned a piece of gossip from a hundred years ago. My grandmother was a physics student at the Ecole Normale Superieure de Jeunes Filles (ENSJF), where a few years earlier she would have had classes with Marie Curie, but instead, was taught by her replacement Paul Langevin.

As the family story goes, Langevin was a terrible teacher. He was also sexist, and claimed that the only good thing about teaching women was that it did not require any preparation. But one day, when my grandmother arrived at the school, she found a group gathered in great excitement around one of her friends, who had bought the newspapers: "Look! They are talking about our teacher! Look at what they are saying about Langevin!" - the newspapers were saying that Langevin had an affair with (then widowed) Mme Curie. That much I knew from wikipedia, but the little additional bit that I did not know was that it was not only the journalists who spread the rumor but also Langevin's wife who made a big scandal about it - so perhaps there was some truth behind the tabloids' stories.

Had I not visited Curie's house, I would not have heard that anecdote. How many stories about the past are sleeping in our elderly relatives' memories, I wonder?


  1. This says his wife was the one who leaked the story to the press.


  2. R'u guys climbing balconies to peek into your neighbors' bedrooms? Do you stick your ear to their doors? C'mon, have some self-respect, have some class.


  3. wlod, do you not share the fascination of hearing 100 years later from a second hand witness about Langevin's teaching style?

    I know it's not classy, but what about the small world phenomenon, not just across space but also across time? Isn't there something fascinating about that?

  4. Just out of curiosity - how did you like Warsaw? (I did my Master's in mathematics in Warsaw, so I lived there for 5 years)

  5. I'm not sure. I was there as a tourist. Two things really struck me: one, people are really proud of all things Polish; two, they really hate communism. It's not the polite and indifferent disregard of communism that I am used to, but a strong reaction of visceral rejection.

    But my visit was a bit too short to form an opinion of Warsaw. How did you like it?

  6. "Two things really struck me: one, people are really proud of all things Polish"

    So you should have also noticed that people get upset about "Marie Curie" - it's "Maria *Skłodowska*-Curie" ;).

    Many people view Warsaw as an ugly city (at least as compared to other old Polish cities like Kraków or Wrocław). Frankly speaking I like it very much, although I'm not objective by any means, since I have a lot of personal affection for it (as I studied here).

  7. Yes, I noticed, but I'm terrible at remembering names, as my students could tell you, and "Skłodowska" is too hard for me :)