Book review: Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Fallout

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss will catch your eye. Somewhere between a graphic novel and a coffee table art book, Radioactive is a one-of-a-kind volume that defies classification.

As the title suggests, Radioactive is loosely a biography of Marie Curie, a Polish-born scientist who was the first woman to win a Nobel prize (for her work on radioactivity), and the only woman to win two Nobel prizes in two different fields.

First: This book is physically beautiful. The hard cover is thick and smooth. Like radium, it glows in the dark. The interior pages have no ordinary black-on-white text. Instead, artistic fonts are arranged irregularly across background art. The overall effect raises the importance of the art over the text. This is a nice book to flip through but the words can be hard to read.

Second: Before picking up this book, I knew nothing of Marie Curie’s life except that she was a famous woman scientist and her work had something to do with radioactivity. This wholly ignorant point of view no doubt helped me to enjoy what I’d call the light biographical sketch in this text. Someone already familiar with Marie’s life and career is unlikely to discover anything new here; this is not a biography in the usual sense.

What Radioactive accomplishes is to convey a sense of the woman as a person. Her drive. Her self-control. Her intelligence. And most of all, her passion.

I don’t mean only her passion for her research, which was profound. Also passion for her husband Pierre and her general disposition toward romance. Her belief in love even after Pierre’s untimely death led to devastating scandal in the patriarchal society of Paris.

A substantial fraction of the text is devoted to diversions from the biographical story. I felt these were more distractions than enrichments to the tale. For example, there are pages on Poland, Marie’s home country; on atomic weapons; on a watch factory where radium paint was used; and on one couple’s belief in the healing (yes, healing) powers of radiation exposure. (Marie herself lived longer than one might think given her lifelong exposure to radiation. She died of aplastic anemia, a consequence of that exposure, at the age of 67.) A couple of these asides I found mildly interesting; most I did not and I paged forward to where the story of Marie’s life resumed.

Summary: A book noteworthy for its portrayal of a gifted, deeply passionate woman scientist who struggled and achieved. The unusual combination of art and science make Radioactive an ideal gift for people with an interest in both areas.

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