Like most young people, as an eager girl at St. Martin of Tours Parish School in Philadelphia, I learned a lot about dead people. Saints, scientists, presidents, dictators, the Holy Family. I pondered their accomplishments, memorized their cardboard faces taped on Catholic chalkboards, and repeated my prayers to the sky in their honor. I even had favorites.
One was Alexander Fleming, the Scottish architect of Penicillin, humankind’s first bacteria terminator. Hasta la vista, Syphilis. Unfortunately, I was highly and “unfairly” allergic to Sir Fleming’s masterpiece and was unable to partake in his pink delicacy without suffocating.
That is one reason why Marie Curie became my most favorite scientist. She won lots of awards, achieved many “firsts” for womankind, traveled, and had a slow death resulting from her dedication to radium research. What a dame. She won two Nobel Prizes and had a fine beau. She was the teenage girl scientist’s answer to Sylvia Plath.
Lauren Redniss’ breathtaking book Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie–A Tale of Love and Fallout once again connected me with Marie and my girlhood wonder. The cover of the book literally glows in the dark (I know people are prone to hyperbole and overuse “literally” but this cover truly glows like the stars that adorned my teenage ceiling). The pages illuminate like a periodic table come to life. It has the best elements of a child’s picture book with the length and subject manner to entice any adult. Redniss uses color to tell the Curie story as much as text. Orangey-yellow sketches explode when Marie meets Pierre and black, gray, and white-blue illustrations befall somber times making Redniss’ treasure a heavy gem, half amber and half moonstone.
Direct quotes from the Curies, letters, x-rays, and a “handwritten” typeface created especially for this project by Redniss brings a intense closeness to reader and protagonists. This is not just a story of shared scientistic accomplishment, but a story of how a life can dance many times with discovery. Discovering radioactivity. Discovering how far we can go. Discovering shared passions. True love with another human being. Success. Partnership. Infidelity. Unexpected consequences. Atomic. Death. This work is also an exhibition of a new type of codex, the fusion of graphic novel, biography, coffee table book, atlas, and textbook.
It pulses and breaks unlike anything I have read. A ambitious high school student would enjoy this as much as a grandmother or a father reading it to his daughter before sleep. It has the spooky otherworldliness of Egyptian Pharoahs and Byzantine Icons, but it also rubs against the heavy realness of the Curies’ time, the Manhattan Project, Hiroshima, and Chernobyl.
It made me think of scientists in general and how their lives are both extraordinary and mundane, knowable and distant. They cure diseases and throw death out of our dinner parties; yet, sometimes they must dine themselves with this enemy to figure him out. We learn the Curies poisoned themselves, experimented on their own bodies, and waved away precaution when it obstructed scientific truth. They could have ascended to demigod status among us; but Redniss portrays her characters as full of very human misfortunes too.
For a sneak peak, you can check out images, music, and demonstrations featured in a New York Public Library exhibit inspired by this book: Radioactive the Exhibit. Maayan Tzuriel’s animation in the “Love” section is great.
In conclusion, I left the book glowing and retracting, trying to make sense of the knowledge that Marie’s radioactivity would someday take the hand of nuclear fission and walk it into the future. And that there would be many dead people whose names would never have a chance to be on any classroom chalkboard.