Of Passion and Polonium
RADIOACTIVE: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout. Lauren Redniss. 208 pp. It Books/HarperCollins, 2011. $29.99.
Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive is a book that truly is out of the ordinary, and it is well worth reading and contemplating. Foremost, it is a work of visual art. That art is integrated with the text of a biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, which is interspersed with vignettes on the uses and perils of the radioactive elements that the Curies isolated and studied. Images appear on most pages, often alongside or as background for the text, which is set in a typeface created by Redniss. The typeface, which is not always easy to read, is based on the visual style of title pages of manuscripts in the New York Public Library and is named Eusapia LR, after the Italian Spiritualist medium Eusapia Palladino, who was popular in fin-de-siècle Paris and whom the Curies knew.
The book is illustrated in blues, oranges and reds, as well as in a lighter blue that is meant to suggest what Marie Curie referred to as the “spontaneous luminosity” of radium, which emits a faint-blue light. A cyanotype photographic printing process, which produces a rich Prussian blue background, is used for many of the author’s drawings. This process, which uses sunlight and a solution of photosensitive chemicals, is meant to evoke similar techniques used to produce images in early radiation science. The bright orange and red colors in other images remind readers of the energy, the glow and the heat of radioactive substances; in one of the book’s embedded vignettes, these colors are explicitly recalled by a survivor of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima: “Suddenly all the windows in front of me became red. It was a beautiful color, like the sunrise mingled with orange.”
In narrating the well-known story of Marie and Pierre Curie, Redniss admits that she has ignored advice from their granddaughter, Hélène Langevin-Joliot, to avoid telling the Curies’ lives as a fairy tale. Redniss’s narrative is not merely fanciful, however; it is documented with archival and published sources, including Eve Curie’s biography of her mother, Madame Curie (originally published in 1937), and Susan Quinn’s 1995 Marie Curie: A Life. Redniss’s prose often is poetic, but some of the most striking poetic language is found in direct quotations of Marie Curie’s writing, in particular Marie’s 1923 biography of her husband, who died in a tragic street accident in 1906. Writing of their 1895 honeymoon in Brittany, Marie mentions that they loved “the reaches of heather and gorse, stretching to the very points of Finistère, which seemed like claws or teeth burying themselves in the water which forever rages at them.”
After demonstrating the existence of two new and radioactive elements, polonium and radium, in 1898, the Curies laboriously succeeded in separating 0.1 gram of radium chloride in 1902. Marie described its “gleamings, which seemed suspended in darkness. . . . The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights.” In 1903 the Curies shared a Nobel Prize with Henri Becquerel, who had first discovered uranium’s natural radioactivity.
Redniss’s biographical narrative is spare but effective, concentrating on the relationship between Marie and Pierre and on their scientific work and their family; she includes the discovery of artificial radioactivity by their daughter Irène Curie and her husband Frédéric Joliot, and mentions the marriage in 1948 of Irène and Frédéric’s daughter Hélène to Michel Langevin, the grandson of the man who had been Marie’s lover decades earlier. Marie Curie’s affair with Paul Langevin in 1910 and 1911 gets considerable attention (and artwork), as does Paul Langevin’s duel with the gossip-mongering journalist Gustave Téry. Among the many striking images in the book is a hand-colored cyanotype print of a drawing of Marie Curie at the Nobel award banquet in Stockholm in December 1911, when she defied requests that she should not formally accept her second Nobel Prize because of scandalous publicity in the newspapers about her affair with Langevin.
As Redniss recounts, Marie Curie fully recovered her reputation following her volunteer work during the First World War, when she and Irène operated a fleet of mobile medical X-ray units at the front. Marie enjoyed triumphant tours in the United States in 1921 and 1929. In 1934, described by one of her assistants as so wraithlike that she appeared to be able to “walk through walls,” Marie Curie died of anemia due to long radiation exposure.
The language and images of invisibility, immateriality, death and danger are the book’s constant themes, in tension with visibility, matter, luminosity and love. The tension is captured early, in Redniss’s dramatic remark that Wilhelm Röntgen’s wife “intuited the power of her husband’s discovery [of X-rays]—to intercept, as well as to hasten, death.” Radium fascinated its beholders. The dancer Loïe Fuller asked the Curies to give her some radioactive material to illuminate the fabric of her veils as she whirled about the stage and the Curies’ own home, but they refused.
Marie and Pierre recognized that radiation could have medical uses, and one of the vignettes that Redniss includes is a moving account of the use of radiation in 2001 to treat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in an adolescent boy. Other vignettes are troubling or horrifying, including those that describe the many painful deaths that followed the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, the effects on flora and fauna of fallout from the reactor accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and the development of leukemia in children living downwind of the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s when atmospheric nuclear detonations were still being carried out there.
At first glance, Radioactive looks as though it might be a children’s book, but it is instead a serious nonfiction work in the artistic and literary genre associated with the graphic novel and bande dessinée. An exhibit at the New York Public Library early in 2011 called “Radioactive” displayed 50 images from the book and other materials used in producing it; an interactive online exhibit (http://exhibitions.nypl.org/radioactive/) is still available.
Mary Jo Nye is Professor of History Emerita at Oregon State University. She is the author of Blackett: Physics, War, and Politics in the Twentieth Century (Harvard University Press, 2004) and Michael Polanyi and his Generation: Origins of the Social Construction of Science (to be published by the University of Chicago Press in fall 2011).