98% of Polish people are national heroes, the other 2% are pianists

This was one of the opening lines of the guy providing entertainment for the conference dinner of the meeting I attended in Warsaw last week. The guy was an extremely accomplished Polish pianist, with a self-deprecating sense of humour. He interspersed jokes with stuff like playing the bit from Beethoven’s 9th symphony called ‘Ode to Joy’ in various styles, Scott Joplin, that of a really depressed guy, etc. As entertaining as it was surprising.

Although not as surprising as the fact that the posh tables got their main courses (pork tenderloin with a vodka marinade since you asked) to the accompaniment of the Mission Impossible theme. Truly an unusually musical conference dinner. I guess Poland is quite a musical nation. Warsaw’s airport is named after the composer Chopin.

One of the advantages of the travel that being a scientist involves is seeing things from other perspectives. The conference dinner was in the main auditorium of the Warsaw Institute of Technology, and on the way in we passed a statue of Maria Sklodowska-Curie. This is the double-Nobel-prize-winning scientist usually known in English as Marie Curie. She discovered a number of elements, including polonium which she named after the country of her birth. She was born in Warsaw but worked in Paris. Until his death, a lot of this work was with her husband Pierre Curie.

I guess many Poles want to reclaim at least partly, almost certainly the most famous Polish-born woman. Sklodowska-Curie remains the only scientist, of any nationality and either sex, to win Nobel prizes in two different sciences (physics and chemistry). A remarkable achievement, and although I don’t know the full history my impression is that she might not have had the choice to go to university and work in Warsaw. Poland as a nation did not exist when she was born (1867), it was part of the then Russian Empire (as in the entity ruled by Tsars and that fell during her lifetime to Lenin and the communists).

In some respects, the UK has an anomalous history. It has existed continuously as a nation state for many centuries and I guess the large major war actually fought in Britain was the civil war of the 17th century. Poland has been a lot less fortunate, but unless you travel and talk to people from other countries it is easy to implicitly assume that everywhere is kind of like the UK.