Freethought Almanac

Lighting a candle in toxic air.

November 7: Camus + Curie

Albert Camus (1913)

It was on this date, November 7, 1913, that French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus was born in Mondovi, Algeria. Camus studied philosophy with the idea of teaching it, but also discovered theater and journalism, working at those endeavors full time by 1938. In World War Two (1941) he joined the French Resistance against the Nazis and edited Combat, an underground newspaper.

He established an international literary reputation with a succession of works including The Stranger (1946), The Plague (1948), The Rebel (1954) and The Myth of Sisyphus (1955). He was awarded the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature, but said he would have voted for his friend André Malraux!

On 4 January 1960, Camus was killed in an automobile accident on a return trip to Paris, at age 46. It was Albert Camus who said, while addressing Dominican priests in 1948,

I shall not, as far as I am concerned, try to pass myself off as a Christian in your presence. I share with you the same revulsion from evil. But I do not share your hope, and I continue to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die.*

Elsewhere, Camus said, "If Christianity is pessimistic as to man, it is optimistic as to human destiny. Well, I can say that, pessimistic as to human destiny, I am optimistic as to man." And, in his 1947 novel, The Plague, Camus wrote, "Since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn't it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him, and struggle with all our might against death without raising our eyes towards the heaven where He sits in silence?"

* quoted in Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, 1961, essay "The Unbeliever and Christians," p. 70 (translated by Justin O'Brien).

Marie Curie (1867)

It was also on this date, November 7, 1867, that French chemist and nuclear physicist Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland. She was brought up a Catholic by her mother, but her father was a freethinker and provided her with some scientific training. She abandoned Catholicism before she was twenty. She met Physics Professor Pierre Curie while studying at the Sorbonne. They were married in 1895. In her 1924 memoir, she says that they had a civil marriage ceremony, "in conformity with the views of both of us," because "Pierre belonged to no religion and I did not practice any."*

The Curies teamed up to conduct research on radioactive substances and, in 1903, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics — she the first woman to receive the award — along with Henri Becquerel, for isolating the element radium. After her husband's early death in 1906, Mme. Curie took his place as Professor of General Physics at the Sorbonne — she the first woman to hold the position. In 1911 she received a second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, for her work in radioactivity — she the first man or woman to receive two Nobel prizes.

Internationally respected, by the end of her life Marie Curie counted 15 gold medals, 19 degrees, and eighty-eight other academic honors. She once said,

You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.

Overexposed to radiation, Mme. Curie died of leukemia on 4 July 1934 and had a secular funeral. She was the first woman, on her own merits, laid to rest under the famous dome of The Panthéon in Paris. Her older daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, with her husband, won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935 — the first mother and daughter to be so honored. Her younger daughter, Eve Curie, wrote a biography of her mother in which she confirms that every member of this gifted family was a freethinker.**

* Marie Curie, Pierre Curie, 1924, p. 52. ** Eve Curie, Mme. Curie, 1938.

Originally published November 2003.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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August 14: John Galsworthy

John Galsworthy (1867) It was on this date, August 14, 1867, that British novelist and dramatist John Galsworthy was born into a prosperous family in Kingston Hill, Surrey. He was educated at Harrow and studied law at New College, Oxford. Galsworthy took to travel and, in 1893 met the novelist Joseph Conrad – afterward deciding […]

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