The day I met Marie Curie’s granddaughter

Langevin-Joliot at the Globe talking about her exceptional family and the current status of women in science (Image: Julien Ordan/CERN)

At the beginning of the twentieth century in Thoiry, a small village close to CERN, there was a very talented chef, Hermann Leger. People came from all over Europe to taste his dishes and enjoy his warm welcome, and well-known scientists were no exception.

On 25 July 1930, the International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation (from the Societé des Nations), which included Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, took an afternoon off to go there for dinner. 

On 25 July 1930, the International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation (from the Societé des Nations) visited the Hotel Leger in Thoiry. The delegation included Marie Curie (seated far left) and Albert Einstein (seated third from the left). (Image: Marie-Pierre Soulard Léger)

When the “Thoiry se transforme en musique” concert was announced for 1 July 2017, I hoped to invite some special guests who had been part of Thoiry’s history. Hélène Langevin-Joliot (a physicist, Emeritus Research Director in Fundamental Nuclear Physics at the CNRS in Orsay, France, the granddaughter of Pierre and Marie Curie, and the daughter of Frédéric Joliot and Irène Curie) came to my mind. I asked if we could have the honour of her presence at the concert and also take her on a visit to CERN’s laboratory and its experiments and you cannot imagine how thrilled I was when she accepted.

Once Langevin-Joliot arrived, she was given a whirlwind tour of CERN and Thoiry, visiting ATLAS, AMS, NA62 and, later in the week, ISOLDE, CMS, the synchrocyclotron and LHCb. She also accompanied me to visit what remains of the Hotel Leger, and into the centre of Geneva, where we sought out places her grandmother had mentioned in letters to her daughter when she came to Geneva every July, from 1922 until her death.

After agreeing to share some more of her stories and memories, Langevin-Joliot gave a fascinating talk on her life and some of its more interesting moments at the Globe of Science and Innovation. Her story inspired many, and the Globe was so full that many people could not get through the doors.

Paola Catapano (left) interviews Hélène Langevin-Joliot in Thoiry about the reasons why her grandmother came to Geneva and Thoiry around 1930. The Echo du Reculet band is in the background (Image: Giorgina Brown)

Musicians from the village of Thoiry, the Echo du Reculet, had the honour of starting the evening with a musical sonification of the famous photo of Marie Curie and Albert Einstein, made possible by the sonification algorithms of Domenico Vicinanza and Genevieve Williams, and accompanied by a slideshow explaining the context.

VIP visit,Marie Curie,Personalities and History of CERN
During her trip, Langevin-Joliot (middle) visited much of CERN and even managed to fit in a trip to the underground caverns of LHCb (pictured) and CMS (Image: Sophia Bennett/CERN)

The next day we held the concert, with Langevin-Joliot as the guest of honour. It was an incredible event: the hall was packed with people excited to hear how Thoiry sounded when transformed into music. Vicinanza and Williams had sonified several images and stories, from the Jura landscape, the village and the history of Thoiry, to the famous meeting and dinner at the Hotel Leger between Briand and Strasemann in 1926 (both Nobel Prize winners), and two poems celebrating Thoiry.

VIP visit,Marie Curie,Personalities and History of CERN
Chiara Mariotti (left) and Hélène Langevin-Joliot under the street sign dedicated to her grandmother (Image: Sophia Bennett/CERN)

For the grand finale, the orchestra played a sonification of the movements of the director (recorded a few months before), while the director simultaneously generated music with accelerometers, creating a very special and never-before-heard duet.

It was a very intense week, full of emotions. What a woman! What vitality! I was touched by what my children told me when she left: “We liked her very much, she is a very nice lady. We were really impressed that you two were talking as if you had known each other for a long time!”

Paola Catapano interviews Hélène Joliot Langevin about the differences she has heard and seen about working in science from her grandmother, Marie Curie, through her own career and today. (Video: Julien Ordan/ Paola Catapano/CERN)