When I first heard of Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss, it was billed as a graphic novel about Marie and Pierre Curie. It had also been described as an art book. It is neither. In Radioactive, Redniss has made the narrative part of the picture, and used images to comment on, as well as illustrate, the story. It’s a combination that lifts the book above either graphic novel or artbook to create something new and exciting.
It is, of course, the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. (She and Pierre also won the prize in physics, in 1903.) As a biography, Radioactive makes the already exciting life of Marie Curie even more exciting, relaying aspects of Curie’s life that most of us have never heard about. The most dramatic involved her affair after Pierre’s untimely death in a horse carriage accident, and the problems it caused in her professional life. Her fellow scientists — many of whom had no problem with extra-marital dalliances on the part of male colleagues, such as Einstein — wrote advising Curie to decline her invitation to Stockholm to accept her second, solo, Nobel Prize. The matter actually led to several duels.
But I was particularly fascinated to learn about the Curies’ earlier connection with the occult. Marie and Pierre, along with many other scientists and great thinkers of their day, were intrigued by psychics and seances. They attended evenings hosted by the notorious Eusapia Palladino, a medium who was popular among the intellectuals in Paris. As Redniss writes:
If the Spirtualist claims proved to be true, Pierre wrote, there was “nothing more important from a scientific point of view.” He analyzed data from a seance as he would have in any laboratory experiment. He measured the ionization of the air. He weighed Palladino herself, finding that the medium gained six kilos in the course of the sessions. He wrote a friend, “These phenomena that we have seen seem to us inexplicable by any trickery — tables rising from four legs, transport of faraway objects, hands that pinch and caress you, luminous apparitions. Everything in a place that was prepared by us with participants we know well and with no possible deception.”
Redniss admits that while belief in an afterlife seems ridiculous to us now, ” I do try to treat it with respect in the book.” The reason, as she told me during a recent interview, is that at the time the Curies were making their discoveries, everything that scientists believed was being turned upside down. If the atom could give off energy, then why couldn’t human energy express itself outside the body? For Redniss, “Eusapia could be in a way the silent narrator of the book.” As she explained:
It was so new. The Curies were willing to concede that something they could not see could be real. That openness allowed them to make this insight into the structure of the atom.
In acknowledgement of Eusapia’s importance, Redniss named the typeface she designed for the book in her honor. In fact, the artwork and design of Radioactive is as fascinating as the story itself. Redniss used a cyanotype technique that resulted in luminous blueprint-like images (similar to the Sunprint paper your kids may have used), which she then enhanced with other colors. According to a section on the New York Public Library website created by Redniss’ students from Parsons The New School for Design (Redniss received a fellowship from the library to work on the book):
Redniss chose this medium for several reasons. In a cyanotype, the negative of an image creates the impression of an internal light. For Redniss, this made thematic sense: an attempt to capture on paper what Marie Curie called radium’s “spontaneous luminosity.” In addition, Redniss thought it fitting to use a process based on exposure, since photographic imaging was central to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity.
There’s yet another layer to Radioactive. Redniss interweaves her story of the Curies with eyewitness accounts of the effects of radioactivity on modern life. And again, she is remarkably evenhanded about it, showing the medical uses of radioactivity as well as its destructive power. By showing the connections between Marie Curie’s early labors and the later uses and development of her work, the book makes it all the more relevant.
Don’t let my gushing put you off. Radioactive may not be a graphic novel, but teens and adults who are interested in science or art will be blown away by the possibilities it presents. Radioactive is a rich and complex story of life, love, and science told through narrative and imagery. It is a powerful and beautiful book.