Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie – A tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss

By Paul Callaghan In Books

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21st May, 2011 Leave a Comment

This year marks a century since the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Marie Curie. In 1903, she and husband Pierre had jointly shared the Nobel Prize in Physics. She remains the sole recipient of a Nobel Prize in both physics and chemistry and it is fitting 2011 features a series of events in her honour.

Wikipedia lists 10 biographies of Marie Curie, the latest being Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie – A Tale of Love and Fallout, by Lauren Redniss. This last book, written and illustrated in the style of a children’s fairy tale, represents a singular departure from its ­predecessors.

The book’s central story concerns the loves and losses of Marie Curie. Intricately woven through this story is a description of her science, and the scientific work of those closest to her. The book feels almost child-like and has a typeface reminiscent of handwriting, patterned stylistically on each page, along with wistfully romantic drawings of the lovers. Mostly, the pages are beautiful to look at, although the white or coloured font on dark wash pages makes the text hard to decipher and sometimes ­irritating to the eyes.

Certainly, the story of the scientific work of Marie, Pierre and Marie’s later lover Paul Langevin, as well as that of her daughter and son-in-law, the Joliot-Curies, is simply but accurately recounted. But invading the pages, seemingly at random, are pointlessly peculiar essays about, inter alia, a minor American scientist suspected of being a spy; a map of the bomb damage to Hiroshima; a Russian map of the Chernobyl district, including a story about partial albinism in birds (although any connection to Chernobyl is mysterious); a mutant plant found near Three Mile Island (with the solemn pronouncement “it is sterile”; my goodness, has science come down to n=1?); and automatic surveillance systems in nuclear weapons complexes.

What on earth is the reader to make of these juxtapositions? Is this the “fallout” in the author’s tale of love?

Marie Curie’s scientific genius was recognised by all who interacted with her, including our own Ernest Rutherford. It was Curie’s work on radioactivity that led Rutherford to discover the alpha particle in his graduate student days. She went on to identify and purify the elements polonium and radium, and to enhance our understanding of the role of radioactivity in causing transmutation of elements.

Radioactivity is a natural phenomenon. Our own bodies possess radioactive isotopes and have done so since the origin of Homo sapiens. The Earth’s core has been heated by radioactivity for billions of years. But here we go again – the horror of nuclear weapons, and the incidents of nuclear energy, laid with tenuous relevance at the feet of a scientist. The superficial and ill-informed connect usually Albert Einstein with nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. Now it is the turn of the Curies.

Nuclear energy and its use and misuse are no more a product of the science of Marie Curie than of that of Archimedes or Isaac Newton.

I digress in frustration at an illiteracy that cannot distinguish between the meaning of the words “radiation” and “radioactivity”, although Redniss understands the difference, and at those who find apocalypse in the release of any level of radioactivity, even to no obvious biosphere detriment, in the face of calamitous natural disasters killing tens of thousands. All this has been so apparent in 2011 post-tsunami Sendai.

The “fallout” asides are a shame. Radioactive might have achieved Redniss’s evident hope for a seamless, even magical, work of poetry and illustration, about a wonderful woman, her courage and her heartaches. Marie Curie deserved the full attention of her biographer, without the cheap ­distractions. Still, during her very public affair with Langevin, she suffered ­hysteria aplenty. I guess she could handle this minor irritant. And, after all, her love stories are handled with empathy and kindness in this book.


Sir Paul Callaghan is Alan MacDiarmid Professor of Physical Sciences at Victoria University of ­Wellington and 2011 New Zealander of the Year.

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