By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Oct 13, 2011
Category: Non Fiction
There are exciting, original books, and then there is “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout” --- a book so astonishingly inventive that the cover is both a joke and a metaphor.
"Radioactive” glows in the dark.
And that’s just the start of the charm and beauty and high intelligence of an oversized book that mixes text and art, documents and narrative, to tell a story that starts with the story of the Curies and then radiates outward.
Image-and-text --- like a non-fiction graphic novel?
Sure, if the non-fiction graphic novel had been drawn by Matisse and Warhol and researched and written by Joan Didion. The author’s description should be the start of you moving closer to the screen and reading more slowly: “a visual book about invisible things --- in this case, radioactivity and love.”
“Radioactive” is such a bitch slap to traditional thinking about books and biography and the subject of radiation that --- the metaphor is inevitable --- it really has no half-life. This is a reading/viewing experience you’ll never forget. And when you need to give a book to someone who has “everything,” it’s an obvious choice. [To buy “Radioactive” from Amazon, click here.]
The subtitle --- “love and fallout” --- is the hint that this is a book of mystery and magic, for Marie and Pierre Curie, though two, shared a love so deep they lived and thought and worked as one. And then, as we consider what happened to them, and what their discoveries have meant to the planet…..
But the core of the book is the story of these two great scientists. Marya Sklodowska, a brilliant student from Poland, came to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. In 1894, she met Pierre Curie, an iconoclast who taught physics and chemistry. How deep was their love? As Pierre wrote to her, "It would be a fine thing ... to pass our lives near to each other, hypnotized by our dreams; your patriotic dream, our humanitarian dream, and our scientific dream." The Curies discovered radioactivity and, in 1903, won the Nobel Prize for Physics. Much excitement followed about its uses. And so it makes a kind of sense that the Curies would carry radium around, unaware that it causes radioactive poisoning and cancer. (Even now, some of their notebooks must be stored in lead boxes.) Pierre died in 1906. Marie carried on. In 1911, she won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry; she’s one of only two scientists to win the Nobel in a second field. Eventually, radiation killed her.
It’s a great story, often told and memorably filmed. For Lauren Redniss, a professor whose sketches-and-text pieces have been featured on the New York Times Op-ed page, the attraction was larger:
I was drawn to Marie Curie’s story because it is full of drama --- passion, discovery, tragedy and scandal. But I also thought the story was an interesting way to look at questions that affect our world right now. Since Marie Curie coined the word "radioactivity" in 1898, we’ve struggled with nuclear-weapons proliferation, we’ve debated the role of radiation in medical treatment, and we’ve considered nuclear energy as an alternative energy source to counter climate change. These questions all have roots in a love story in turn-of-the-century Paris.
Her research was vast:
I traveled to Hiroshima to interview atomic bomb survivors, to the Nevada Test Site outside of Las Vegas to talk with weapons specialists, to Warsaw to see the house where Marie Curie was born, to the Curie Institut in Paris to interview the Curie’s granddaughter. I spoke with an oncologist exploring innovative radiation treatment in San Bernadino, California and the Idaho National Laboratory’s Director of the Center for Space Nuclear Research about how nuclear power and propulsion can enable space exploration and crystal cities built on the moon.
And what do you get? Two hundred pages that bear re-reading. I, for one, didn’t immediately notice how the book begins: the stories of Marie and Pierre, before they met, on facing pages, with black-and-white drawings that look as if they were done by pre-pop Warhol. They get together --- and although the background switches to pastels, there’s a red heat field between them. Clever! [Some sample pages: hereand here.]
With their great discovery, the story widens. First, of course, there’s the commercial exploitation; there are radium-laced "toothpaste, condoms, suppositories, chocolates, pillows, bath salts and cigarettes." The author’s comment: an image of a woman sitting in a room lit by radium. It glows.
There’s a mandatory stop at the Nevada Test Site where, in just a year, our government exploded almost 1,000 nuclear bombs under ground. Just as spooky: the depths of the Merry Widow Health Mine in Montana, where some desperately ill Americans went to breathe radioactive air they thought would cure them. And there’s an account of the Hiroshima bombing I’ve never read or seen.
You can’t experience this book without thinking of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. But it’s not, in the end, a downer. “One of the things that links the Curies' scientific work to their passionate love affair is their curiosity --- that ability to make a leap of imagination and to look into the unknown,” Redniss has said. “If there's an idea central to the book, it's that intellectual adventurousness.”