It’s in the water, It’s in the story

I have a memory of following my father into the basement, when I was a little girl, and he pointed out a space near his workbench where he thought our family could build a bomb shelter. This was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I was too young to understand the intensity of the cold war stand-off or to be afraid. My father’s consideration seemed no different than my mother’s concern over the water stain on the dining room ceiling.

In Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout, Vic Rantala, president of Safecastle, LLC, describes today’s average bomb shelter — approximately seven feet tall, eight feet wide and twenty feet long, which would cost $23,000, not including installation and transportation. It’s rather chilling to contemplate on the Safecastle website.

Redniss’s thought-provoking book isn’t about bomb shelters, though. It’s an astonishing artistic narrative about Pierre and Marie Curie and their scientific advances regarding radioactivity during the 19th and 20th centuries. Their life story of love, marriage (1895), collaboration in their Paris lab, discoveries and Nobel Prizes (1903 and 1911) provides a biographical narrative told in prose and also drawings, photos and charts that, altogether, create a startling and hypnotic sensory punch.

"'We lived in a preoccupation as complete as that of a dream.'"

There’s also another story going on here — the broader story of consequences, which Redniss tells by juxtaposing historic events, news and facts with the Curies’ biography, taking us on brief detours, you could say, to put their discoveries in perspective. There are, for example, visually beautiful and factually sobering “detours” about Hiroshima, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, those aforementioned Safecastle fallout shelters and the poisoning of exiled former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London (2006) by the radioactive isotope polonium 210.

"At the dawn of the twentieth century, radium had mesmerized the public with its sublime glow. However, a fuller picture was beginning to come into focus."

Marie and Pierre discovered polonium and radium and demonstrated their existence through the elements’ radioactivity. Redniss informs us that Marie slept with a small jar of glowing radium by her pillow, unaware of its toxic properties. This brilliant scientist was enamored by the powers of radium, as were many others, which seemed to offer a wealth of:

“…potential applications, some mystical, some practical, many appealing to both impulses at once. Radium, it was said, could cure: Anemia, Arteriosclerosis, Arthritis, Asthenia, Diabetes… Radium was also touted as a replacement for electric lighting.”

Redniss takes us through the death of Pierre, struck by a horse-drawn carriage crossing the Pont Neuf in Paris in 1906; Marie’s scandalous love affair with a married man; her continued discoveries and second Nobel Prize; and her death and scientific legacy taken up by her daughter Irene. It is Irene’s research with her husband in artificial radioactivity that transformed a naturally stable element into a radioactive one, contributing to studies that led to the development of the atomic bomb. They, too, would win a Nobel Prize (1935).

"Marie returned home to learn that her husband was dead. The flowers he had picked in the country remained fresh on the table. His gray watch, recovered from the scene of the accident, still ticked away the time."

Additional to the extraordinariness of this book is the cyanotype printing used for some of the images. Chemicals are applied to paper and a negative or transparency of the image is pressed to the paper, which is then exposed to sunlight, turning the paper blue. The end result lends a spooky, radium-like aura to some of the pages.

The combined elements of artwork and text make the Curies’ scientific research exciting, accessible and easily understood, and also places before us the ominous side of what these famous scientists gave the world in their discoveries, that can save us through medical radiation treatments, or destroy us with a nuclear bomb.

Radioactive is among the nominees for the 2011 National Book Award in the category of non-fiction. The cover of Radioactive is printed with glow-in-the-dark ink. The title for this TLC blog post is taken from the song “Radioactive” by the Kings of Leon.

2 thoughts on “It’s in the water, It’s in the story

  1. This book has been donated to the Aldus Society’s Silent Auction! What a small world. It’s truly a beautiful book — and tonight I’m going to see if the cover still glows in the dark!


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