In November 1911, Marie Skłodowska-Curie was weeks away from being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She received her first Nobel in 1903 for Physics, and the new award meant that she was the first person ever to receive two Prizes. She remains the only person to be recognized in two different sciences. Though her extraordinary work as a scientist should have been all anyone cared about, it seemed that many were preoccupied with her personal life.
Pierre Curie died in 1906, leaving Marie as a widow. A few years later, she became romantically involved with physicist Paul Langevin, who had been a doctoral student of Pierre’s. Though Langevin was separated from his wife, they were still technically married. The relationship caused troubles in the Langevin home, but that was nothing compared to what was about to spill over into the public eye.
Curie, Langevin, and about 20 other scientists were invited to an elite, invitation-only conference in Brussels in the fall of 1911. During this time, love letters between Curie and Langevin had been given to members of the media by Langevin’s wife, who portrayed Curie as an evil homewrecker.
If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.Albert Einstein, November 23, 1911
When Curie returned home to France after the conference, she was greeted by a mob that surrounded her house and terrified Curie’s daughters, who were only 7 and 14 years old at the time. Curie and her daughters temporarily moved in with a friend until the scandal died down.
Albert Einstein—who had just recently been introduced to Curie at the Brussels conference—was disgusted by the media’s actions, prompting him to write this letter to his new friend:
"Highly esteemed Mrs. Curie,
Do not laugh at me for writing you without having anything sensible to say. But I am so enraged by the base manner in which the public is presently daring to concern itself with you that I absolutely must give vent to this feeling. However, I am convinced that you consistently despise this rabble, whether it obsequiously lavishes respect on you or whether it attempts to satiate its lust for sensationalism!
I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty, and that I consider myself lucky to have made your personal acquaintance in Brussels. Anyone who does not number among these reptiles is certainly happy, now as before, that we have such personages among us as you, and Langevin too, real people with whom one feels privileged to be in contact. If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.
With most amicable regards to you, Langevin, and Perrin, yours very truly,
P.S. I have determined the statistical law of motion of the diatomic molecule in Planck’s radiation field by means of a comical witticism, naturally under the constraint that the structure’s motion follows the laws of standard mechanics. My hope that this law is valid in reality is very small, though."
– Albert Einstein, November 23, 1911.
Translation: Haters gonna hate. Don't read the comments.
(Sidenote: “Perrin” refers to Jean Perrin, a family friend of the Curies and Langevins, who defended Curie in the aftermath)
This letter to Curie was uncovered by astrobiologist David Grinspoon, who was perusing the thousands of Einstein’s documents recently made available online by the Princeton University Press.
An original version of this article was published on IFLScience in December 2017.