Book Review: Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout

Activehistory has a semi-regular book review section that features articles by non-historians writing their views on books that you might find in the history section of your bookstore or university library. This review is a little different in that I am a professional historian (don’t hold it against me), but I am reviewing a book that would not be considered your typical, or your traditional scholarly work of history.

The book in question is Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout, and the reason that I chose to write this review is that having recently read this book, I can’t seem to shake it from my consciousness. Beautiful, imaginative, inspiring, whimsical, enlightening, are just some of the words that spring to mind when trying to describe this book. In short, this book rejuvenated my love of storytelling, while also challenging me to pursue my own discipline in new ways.

Written and created by Lauren Redniss, Radioactive is part visual art, part history, part biography, part science. The book tells the story of the life and loves of Marie Curie, both in her personal and professional life. While a biography of Curie, the book is also a history of the fields of physics and chemistry, including the Curies’ discovery of both radium and polonium. Redniss explores some of the key personalities and scientific breakthroughs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the impact that a select group of scientists and their discoveries would have throughout the 20th century. The book celebrates science and research, while simultaneously contrasting key moments in the early years of physics and chemistry against the later realities of the A-Bomb, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Redniss draws on maps, photographs, archival documentation and drawings to produce a vivid and colourful story that skips through eras, while never losing its footing in Curie’s life. To simply write about this book does not do justice, as the book itself attacks your senses and challenges the heart and mind through its various mediums.

While Redniss is not a trained historian, it is clear she knows how to conduct historical research, as the book expertly and ingeniously uses oral histories and archival documentation in novel ways. These sources range from an interview with a witness and survivor of Hiroshima, to FBI file records on a Manhattan Project scientist. What is clear throughout this beautifully worked patchwork of sources is that Redniss cares about her subject. Her portrayal of Curie is even-handed and honest, but Redniss’ art and her writing style also reveal a deep affinity for her subject. As a historian, this book has inspired me by showing me just what is possible in my own field. Redniss has presented new and ingenious ways of making history accessible to a wider audience. Those of us engaged in the task of writing, whether professionally or as a hobby, know what it is like to read the book you wish you had written. It is a rare thing, maybe inducing a little bit of envy, but more so admiration. For me, Radioactive is one of those books.

An exhibition on the making of Radioactive is on display at the main branch of The New York Public Library until 11 April 2011. An accompanying website has also been created in conjunction with The New York Public Library and Parsons the New School for Design.

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