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Book Review: Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss

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Did you know that Marie Curie was awarded not one but two Nobel Prizes in the sciences, and that her daughter and son-in-law also won a Nobel Prize in the sciences? That fact, however, pales in comparison with the amazing details of Marie Curie’s life, which Lauren Redniss has made the subject of an equally amazing book.

The book defies classification: it’s not quite a novel, because Redniss draws on letters, interviews, and existing biographies for the plot; but it’s not quite a biography, because the book also talks about the “fallout” from Curie’s work – fallout that includes, of course, the atom bomb. The book is also “graphic,” in that the prose narrative is wound through and around haunting line drawings and pages saturated in color — the images Redniss creates echo images from the x-rays the Curies discovered. Even the word “radioactive” is a Curie invention.

Redniss has created more than a beautiful coffee table book, however; it’s a compelling story about a love affair — a love affair between two people whose feelings for each other deepened as they worked together.

Pierre and Marie were one another’s “collaborator, muse, and guide” through all their research, until Pierre’s death in 1906. Ironically, Pierre wasn’t killed by radium poisoning (which made him terribly ill and eventually killed Marie) but by a horse-drawn carriage in the middle of a Paris street. After his death, the Sorbonne offered Marie his professorship — the first woman to be named a professor in the history of the institution. Curie went on with her research after Pierre died; her second Nobel came from the individual work she did after his death.

Although the Curies lived in the early 20th century (Marie died in 1933), their story still resonates, not only because their discoveries have become part of our daily lives, for good and ill, but also because of Marie’s position as a working mother. She says “I have been frequently questioned, especially by women, how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy.” Most of us probably aren’t in the running for a Nobel Prize, but many of us can find ourselves in Marie’s story: in love with family and in love with work.

Radioactive is a brilliant re-imagination of Marie Curie’s story. At the risk of making a small pun, I’d say that the book lingers in the mind like radium — images and phrases glowing long after the final page has been turned.

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