Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout

by Lauren Redniss

It Books, 2010

208 pages

I’ve always been fascinated by Marie Curie. At a time when women’s education was confined primarily to the social graces and preparation for housekeeping, she made world-changing scientific discoveries.

But until I read Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive, I knew only the basic outlines of Marie’s story: that she had worked with her husband in their joint lab, made key discoveries regarding radioactivity, won multiple Nobel Prizes, and died of cancer that stemmed from her work. Through Redniss’s book, I gained a much better understanding of just how fascinating, inspiring, and challenging Marie’s life really was.

Born Maria Sklodowska in 1860s Poland, Marie was always deeply interested in science – perhaps not surprisingly, given that her parents were both teachers. After working as a governess to earn funds for her own education, she moved to Paris, where comparatively progressive universities accepted women as full students (not just observers). She was already a talented scientist in her own right when she met Pierre Curie – the two were introduced by a mutual friend who was trying to help Marie find more lab space.

Their relationship is one of the most inspiring elements of Marie’s story. Pierre was smitten by her intelligence, willing even to follow her back to Poland and subordinate his own career to hers. They became attached to each other (“fell in love” isn’t really the right phrase) through their shared passion for scientific discovery, and Marie said in later years that it was as though they grew to share a single mind.

This notion that a strong and devoted marriage isn’t always about romance, and that husband and wife can work together as equals, is one that I think many girls need to hear. Even in today’s world, the emphasis for girls and women is still often on appearance and social appeal. For girls whose identity is more about their intelligence, the example of a relationship like the Curies’ is fresh air.

After just 11 years with Pierre, Marie’s life went into a tailspin. Pierre died in an accident, and Marie’s subsequent affair with a married student embroiled her in a scandal that threatened to destroy her career. I don’t support adultery in the least, but Redniss does an excellent job of drawing out the impact on Marie of the double standard of the times – while the academic and scientific communities called for all kinds of sanctions against her, no one batted an eye at her male contemporaries’ mistresses and illegitimate children.

Ultimately, the affair ended, and Marie turned her attention to raising her two daughters and continuing the work she’d done with Pierre. This was another inspiring element of her story, one I had been completely unfamiliar with. Marie didn’t just break ground for science, she raised two strong, intelligent women. One, Irene, became a scientist and Nobel laureate in her own right; her children, in turn, are leading scientists in France today. The other, Eve, became an influential writer, journalist, and humanitarian who received France’s Legion d’Honneur. For her part, Marie continue to work right up until her death, both on her own projects and as a scientific mentor to Irene.

Marie’s legacy (like that of her peer Einstein, whose discoveries also contributed to the development of the atomic bomb) is not without its complications. Redniss’s fascinating book interweaves Marie’s story with vignettes that tell the fallout – both literal and symbolic, both good and bad – of her discoveries. There are photos of mutated plants from nuclear disaster zones, a map of Chernobyl, interviews both with a nuclear weapons scientist and with patients whose lives were saved by radioactive therapies.

But whatever the impact of her work, her personal legacy – of boundless curiosity, determination, intelligence, and courage – is undoubtedly an inspiration.

Note: I recommend previewing this book before giving it to someone under the age of about 15 or 16. It contains content that some parents or teachers might find inappropriate for younger teens.

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