The conversation enters hour two, and the professor picks up his book. He has a point to make and wants the visitor to know now what he has known for 15 years. He thumbs right to Page 9.
"We cannot build a better world without improving the individual," he quotes. The professor reads on, but the words go unheeded. Instead, the visitor watches the way he holds the book, in both hands, cradling it to his chest like an infant. He closes the cover gently and lowers the book to his lap. His hands linger."From just a small beginning, she rose to become the greatest woman who ever lived," Professor Robert Woznicki explains with 15 years' worth of conviction. "I can't find anyone else who even comes close."
"She" is Madame Curie. Marie Curie, born Maria Sklodowska. The greatest woman who ever lived. Get it straight. Please.
There is not space enough for the lady's life: the meager youth in Poland, the move to France, the two Nobel Prizes, the husband killed by a horse-drawn carriage, the five duels fought over her. Consider that the professor has spent 15 of his 72 years getting it down, has written "Madame Curie, Daughter of Poland," made a video, and still he left Tempe, Ariz., Aug. 7, for three weeks in Poland, to knot loose ends.
Warsaw is where both Madame Curie's life and Robert Woznicki's quest began. For her it was 1867; for him 1980. The Kosciuszko Foundation, a Polish heritage group, had grown sick of hearing about "Marie, the Frenchwoman." They wanted to hear about Marie's first 24 years as a Pole. Woznicki was awarded a grant. He researched for a year, haunted museums, the Polish National Archives, the University of Warsaw library. For the next year, he wrote and marveled.
"She had a phenomenal life," he says. "I was in awe when I found out such a great woman had so little written about her."
The essentials of that life occupy the 20 years between 1891 and 1911. In that span, Marie studied at the Sorbonne and married Pierre Curie. Together, they had two girls and shared a Nobel Prize in physics, for their discovery of radioactivity. By the second decade's close, Marie was widowed, had become a women's rights champion and won a Nobel Prize in chemistry for isolating pure radium, a substance used to treat cancer and to find buried petroleum.
The five duels came later, of course. Not only suitors, either. Journalists!
"The media always antagonized each other," the professor explains. "When someone would write something the other fellow disagreed with, he would be challenged to a duel."
While there were no fatalities, the story is still so Hollywood even Hollywood is interested, in a mini-series for which Woznicki is the technical adviser. Loretta Swit from "M*A*S*H" is set to star.
This, however, is a small victory amid 15 years of defeats: The professor's book has lost money, as has his video. Once, he wrote to 1,400 college libraries offering the seminal Curie text. There were two responses and no takers. He even offered to take time off from teaching history at Northern Arizona University to lecture in local high schools. No go. A lesser man might be bitter.
"Madonna and all these other creatures walk around getting all this attention," Woznicki says. "If you ask 100 high school kids who Madame Curie is, only a small percentage might be able to tell you. I'm amazed."
The conversation dwindles now, down to the question that brought the visitor to the professor.
What's in it for him, what's the return for those 15 years?
You have scratched at it, learned that the professor has a wife, a son, a life, 13,000 students in 45 years, adventures of his own - he was in Poland when Solidarity arose, in Beijing for Tiananmen Square. He shines telling those tales, but the lady, Madame Curie, dead since 1934, produces a higher gloss. The why, it turns out, is that love really will do that to a fellow.
"My brother's a millionaire," says Robert Woznicki. "He gives me far-away looks, that I could do all this and not make any money. But a lot of people forget about the joy of research and books. I'm an academic. That's been my life, in books. That's what gets me excited."
You see his hand, at rest on some unsold Madame Curie biographies. The professor swears once more, on his stack of "bibles."
"It's been a great life. I'm a very happy camper."