It’s a particular DNA, mingled with a particular sort of upbringing, that allows us to delve into true intellectual adventurousness. Few of us have the stomach for it. We watch from the sidelines and depend on the greats—the thinkers, artists, and scientists whose individual passions, abilities, and circumstances mysteriously align—to propel our world through its trials and truths. And sometimes, it takes a particular sort of person, one with a sense of mental freedom and creative confidence, to make that greatness accessible and relevant to the rest of us. Lauren Redniss displays her own style of genius as she captures the loves and lives of the Curies—Marie and Pierre—in her illustrated biography Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout, recently nominated for a National Book Award.
You know the simple version from high school science class: the young Polish scientist and older French scientist share a laboratory, discover radium, and fall in love. But from that tale comes a unique work of artistic delicacy and storytelling magnitude.
Redniss is, first and foremost, an artist. She was possessed with the idea of creating a visual story about the kind of love that resonates in the world. In talking with a friend, she remembered the Curies. And their story had two compelling elements: love and radioactivity. Both invisible. Both mysterious. Both sources of glorious wonder and unthinkable pain. Redniss’s steep challenge was to make the invisible visible—to prove reverberating love and science through drawing and design and color. Her art is accompanied by beautifully written text, immaculately researched from diaries, letters, and interviews, and printed in typeface she invented specifically for the book.
She has thought of everything.
Redniss’s art consists primarily of illustrations she created by using a camera-less photographic technique: cyanotype printing. The chemically treated paper, when exposed to sunlight, becomes an ethereal blue. The designs on the page are produced from negatives or transparencies and are pale, seemingly glowing, much as we see in architectural blueprints. The chemicals used in the process are FDA-approved for the treatment of radioactive contamination.
Redniss’s writing takes us beyond history and the personal story of two Nobel prize-winning brilliants to the modern day applications of their discovery: nuclear medicine, nuclear weapons, nuclear power. She tells of Marie Curie and her daughter Irene nursing French troops during World War I, bringing mobile X-ray facilities—“petites Curies”—for the wounded. She relays first hand accounts of the medical miracle of radiation therapy and the horror of radiation poisoning. She quotes nuclear physicists who discuss how nuclear power and propulsion are key technologies for a future of exploring and living in outer space.
She makes her case and then some. The book itself glows in the dark.
One question kept nudging me as I read this remarkable story: between love and lab work, who was caring for the children? It turns out to be a moot point. Marie’s daughters grew up to be scientists who married scientists and gave birth to scientists. Proof of love and science resonating in the world.
The National Book Award winners will be announced this coming Wednesday, November 16, at a ceremony in New York City hosted by actor John Lithgow. This year, female nominees outnumber male by 12 to 8. Radioactive is the first graphic book to be nominated.