Marie Curie: The Curie Institute in Senegal to Nuclear Physics

Paul L. J. Guèye, Physics Department, Hampton University, Hampton, VA USA

Celebrating a double Nobel Laureate personated by Marie Curie seemed to be more challenging than anything I have been involved in my short lifetime. The non-trivial piece was to tell my story, something that I often found awkward as I usually do not talk about myself and certainly not about my accomplishments. Being in the background doing research and teaching is what I enjoy. But … when Ruth Howes reached out, I could not say no!

This talk was a dedication to my grandmother and my family! It spans from me growing-up in Senegal (West Africa) learning about nuclear physics to now being involved at two major national laboratories in the United States: Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (Newport News, Virginia) and the National Superconducting Cyclotron Facility/Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (Lansing, Michigan).

Elders are highly respected and revered in Africa: they are the source of wisdom! This role was personified by my grandmother (Mame as we called her), along with my entire immediate (father, mother, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins) and distant families. And yes: it takes a village to raise a child! My cultural and educational foundations were defined by the numerous discussions and lessons learnt with members of my family, even the skills of cooking (which turned out to be a tremendous asset when I headed overseas for my PhD). This type of foundation is also the symbol of Senegal that can be found in the baobab, one of (if not) the largest trees on this planet that can also live in very arid areas.

With a population of about sixteen million people, Senegal is a rich and multi-cultural country where one can find modern and traditional cultures together in one place. This symbiosis is a unique environment to keep its tradition rooted within its population while at the same time opening its door to future technology and businesses. Children growing up in such an environment are exposed to a variety of opportunities, understanding of differences (cultural, religious …) along with unique challenges and engagements that can only benefit mankind if viewed as a way to embrace our diversity on this planet.

My twin brother, René, and I shared many memories and other unique experiences such as the names of our first child (Yannick for my daughter and Yoann for his son, without consulting each others) … and the same birthdate of his daughter (Maeva) and mine! We always read and heard about stories of twins but living it is a totally different experience.

After a review of my early education (from elementary to high-school), one of the first testimony during my presentation was about role models. Naturally, we think of Einstein as one of the greatest scientists. However, there are many hidden heroes. For Senegal, and Africa in general, Cheikh Anta Diop (1923-1986) was a phenomenon and The Greatest Scientist. He owns seven PhDs ranging from linguistic to fundamental science. Carbon 14 dating was introduced to many of us growing up as The Tool attached forever to him. Quantum mechanics teaches us about relativity and this is a powerful example on how relative great scientists are to different people from different origins.

Like many, I was curious about the (inner) workings of our universe drawn mainly by the fascination about the inter- and intra-relationships between various fields: what is the world beyond the stars that we can see with our naked eyes at night? Is there any analogy between the waves created from an object dropped in water and drawing mountains on a 2D map since they look the same? How do fundamental particles “talk” to each other to make atoms and molecules so unique that we and objects around us look (and are fundamentally) different? … why, how, what: all the questions that most scientists try to answer. Where are the solutions and how can we ensure they are correct? I used to be labeled “Mr. Questions” while going through my education in Senegal (until my MS) and in France (for my PhD).

My decision to pursue nuclear physics stems, in part, from some discussions with one of my late uncle (Prof. René N’Doye); a medical doctor who was also the Dean of the School of Medicine and Pharmacy of UCAD, along with heading the Biophysics and Radiation Physics program at a local hospital (Aristide LeDantec). While I read many textbook about science and physics in particular, one of my very first exposures to the “Curies” was the “Institut Curie” housed in the same hospital where radiation treatments were held to treat diseases. I didn’t pay too much attention to what was happening there but I knew something special was being done. I do recall some short visits to the “Institut” and seeing a few patients seated in the waiting room or going into treatment rooms. What I did not realized at that time is that something was slowly growing inside me and pulling me toward the field of nuclear physics.

Through my BS and MS, I got the chance to learn more about the discovery of radioactivity and the amazing life and impact that Pierre and Marie Curie had in the field of nuclear physics. I did not mention this during my talk but I recall saving my earnings from private tutoring sessions to purchase as many physics and chemistry books detailing the earlier experimental work from fascinating scientists, including Röntgen, Becquerel, the Curies, Chadwick, J. J. Thomson, etc., who pioneered what we know today about the atoms and radioactivity. One story stuck with me since that time that I did not understood until recently. It was one of Marie Curie. A reception was organized to honor her work and people were waiting for a while until someone went to her room to find out why she was so late to come out. It turns out she didn’t want to leave the room with the light still on in her closet, which will waste energy and money … an attitude from her growing up with little money at home. Her friend told her that the light automatically turns off when the door shuts. Of course she did not believe it and wanted a proof. What she did was stunning: she asked her friend to close the door behind her after she went into the closet. Realizing that the light indeed turns off when the door shuts, she was then ready to go to the reception. Looking back, my journey to becoming a nuclear physicist has been to question every information I obtained, whether from a teacher, peer, friend, colleague and while conducting experiments. The approach is simple if one looks at any sort of radiation: put yourself on top of it and, while riding the wave, question everything you “see”.

My earlier interest was to embrace as many topics as possible, scientific or not, since each had its own fascinating facts. This curiosity was nurture with one of my aunts, Marie Guèye. But one was standing above: Quantum Mechanics! One could use it in physics, explain chemistry and even engage in religious discussions (since it is founded on the ideas of probability, “I cannot believe God plays with dices” as Einstein once said). The original plan heading to France was to pursue a PhD in bio-physics; but during my first semester, I was offered the chance to switch to the last experiment comparing unpolarized electron and positron beams scattering off carbon-12 and lead-208 at the former Accélérateur Linéaire de Saclay of the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique. My thesis consisted on two experiments to test the validity of the Born approximation, namely dispersive effects (elastic scattering) and Coulomb distortions (quasi-elastic scattering). The latter proved to be one of the foundation to unravel a mystery between unpolarized and polarized electron elastic scattering experiments conducted at Jefferson Lab in the early 2000s that was embedded in high order corrections (e.g., two-photon exchange) between the incoming lepton probe and the nucleus.

My postdoc years were spent with the Nuclear Physics group of Hampton University participating in numerous experiments until today at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (Jefferson Lab for short). This is when my passion for nuclear physics solidified with my involvement in the first sets of experiments (especially this “strange quark” that doesn’t want to behave like everyone else) and beamline instrumentation (which sparkled a growing interest in accelerator physics). The beauty of the relatively small but most powerful accelerator at Jefferson Lab has provided me with access from source production to physics experiments and everything in-between. This facility is an awesome source for knowledge that I would recommend to all students.

The years following my postdoc allowed me to delve more into nuclear physics and accelerator physics, although I had the privilege to work in other fields such as ultrafast wakefield accelerators, medical physics and more recently radio-astronomy.

I am currently the Chair of the Physics Department at Hampton University (HU), a Historically Black College (HBCU). It has established itself as the #1 Physics Department across all HBCUs Physics. Its research areas currently include nuclear physics, accelerator physics, medical physics, and optical and material sciences. The nuclear physics group (which is relevant for this article) has been leading major projects at Jefferson Lab and, more recently, its 12 GeV upgrade: building the main tracking systems for two experimental halls and leading the entire hypernuclear physics program. HU Physics is the only HBCU to house a graduate program in nuclear physics. Therefore, there was a natural path for this Department to collaborate with the #1 Physics Department in nuclear physics in the US: Michigan State University. This connection was established through the MoNA Collaboration working at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Facility/Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (NSCL/FRIB). Our involvement focused on the development of an active segmented silicon-beryllium target to study neutron rich nuclei along the dripline and a Geant4 Monte Carlo simulation of one of the experimental halls (the N2 vault); thanks in no small words to Michael Thoennessen for opening a path for me to be involved in this (low energy nuclear physics) community.

The present Dean of the School of Science, Dr. Calvin Lowe, is playing a critical role in my new tenure as an administrator. The focus on this session switched to “Millie” Dresselhaus (1930-2017) who passed just weeks before the APS March meeting and highlighting the parallel between her life and the one of Marie Curie. While she will always be remembered as “The Carbon lady”, in my small world her legacy will live forever since she was also the advisor of my new boss, Dr. Lowe, closing the loop of educating even more physicists through her unconditional love of physics and science.

At the time this article was written, I found myself as the only African American doing experimental nuclear physics at an HBCU. Many have been, are and will be first in many areas, establishing breakthrough in various forms and providing opportunities to many for the good of mankind. Along the way, there will be many challenges. Marie Curie proved to not only be an extremely talented and gifted woman physicist but also unique and surpassing many, while maintaining a compassion and humility as a human being. A plethora of documentaries show many facets of her life. Understanding how she and her husband took of the daunting task to extract radium is astonishing but also at the heart of many physicists: passion is a drive that has no time limit! In many ways, “no” is not in my vocabulary as for every problem (whether scientific or not) there is always a solution: one just need to look in the right direction.

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.