Passionate Science

By Jean Farrington

You may think you know all about Marie Curie.  After all, she won two Nobel prizes (physics and chemistry) and her discovery of polonium and radium has had far reaching consequences, both positive and negative.

And you probably know that she and her husband were a devoted couple whose shared passion was their scientific work.  And you might even know that their daughter Irene also became a scientist and worked with her mother.

But what may be unknown is Marie Curie’s passionate and tumultuous personal life.  In a brilliantly ironic statement, she stated, “There is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life.”  Yet after Pierre’s death, she had a passionate relationship with the still-married scientist Paul Langevin.

Lauren Redniss’ new book is a delight and a wonder and simply compelling. Radioactive:  Marie and Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Fallout is something of a cross between a graphic novel, a child’s picture book and a piece of art.  The pages are saturated with color, sometimes flame red, or midnight blue or jet black; there are line drawings, photographs, and typed documents; and the text marches or meanders on the page reinforcing the imagery.With chapter titles like “Symmetry,” “Magnetism,” “Fusion,” “Half-life,” “Exposure” and more Redness tells a double story, that of the Curies and the history of radioactivity from their discoveries to all of the uses and misuses to which radioactive elements have been put.  X-rays for medical diagnosis, cancer treatments, nuclear power plants, and the atomic bomb.  The narrative weaves forward and backward and around touching on nuclear testing, depicting the devastating effects of Chernobyl (chilling photos of stunted flowers birds), and detailing the ultimate irony—the very element that Marie Curie took to bed killed her.

Pierre and Marie Curie were born in 1859 and 1867, respectively, just about when the Spiritualist movement began its heyday.  This belief that you might be able to be in touch with the divine through spirits or ghosts was appealing to Alexander Graham Bell, Arthur Conan Doyle, Pierre Langevin, the Curies and others of note.  Redniss’ art projects the eerie ghostliness of the Spiritualist era and also the luminosity of radioactivity.

With all that has gone on in Japan in recent weeks, this book is very timely and makes you realize the duality of radioactivity, something that can be both beautiful to behold and yet extremely noxious.  If you’re intrigued, come for a book discussion at the California Academy of Sciences on May 11.


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