Luminous Lives

A page from Radioactive.

A page from Radioactive depicting Pierre Curie's death. Image courtesy of Lauren Redniss.

“There is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of my private life,” Marie Curie defiantly wrote in 1911, the year she won her second Nobel Prize. In the foreword to Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, author and artist Lauren Redniss places this quote alongside an apology to Curie. Her illustrated biography of the Curies revels in the connections Marie sought to downplay—the love between the married collaborators and the impact of their discoveries on the world at large.

Exposure. Radiation. Fallout. These words are as indelibly linked to the Curies’ work—the very idea of radioactivity and the identification of polonium and radium—as they are to the life cycle of a romance. At the heart of Radioactive is a juxtaposition of these contrasting themes. This approach runs many risks. Too much emphasis on the personal could trivialize Marie and Pierre’s groundbreaking work, render their complex histories into gushy drivel, and demean Marie’s standing as a person of science. As she started writing the book, the Curies’ granddaughter warned Redniss of two potential traps: turning the story into a fairy tale and diminishing Pierre. But Redniss’s careful research, hushed writing style, and haunting illustrations combine to create a fittingly epic and reverential testament to one of the most important sets of collaborators of all time.

Redniss opens the story with Pierre’s birth in 1859. The half-page portrait accompanying the introductory text reveals a soft-eyed man holding a dandelion. On the opposite page we meet Maria Sklodowska (Marie’s birth name) staring out sideways, scribbling in her book. Redniss lets us know that over the course of her life Marie will lose three important lovers. So it is with a sense of foreboding that the reader is introduced to the separate stories of Pierre and Marie’s early lives, which are interspersed with quotes from the real-life letters and journals of the two.

They meet in 1894 while Marie is looking for lab space. Their research evolves in tandem with their affections, and by 1895 Marie and Pierre are honeymooning in the French countryside. Within two years they have their first child, Irène. “And then,” Redniss says, “the young couple returned to the lab” (p. 41).

Redniss attends to the developments in their individual and collaborative work with as breathless an interest as she takes in the love story framing the book. She expounds on the processes used to identify the two elements Marie and Pierre are famous for—radium and polonium—and surrounds the text with her colorful renderings of their emission spectra. Her skill in translating complex scientific descriptions is matched with an instinct for those occasions where images convey more than words. For example, a recounting of Marie’s investigations into the structure of the atom is followed by a two-page spread of a muted, glowing mushroom cloud accompanied by a simple explanation from Marie’s own mouth: “I coined the word radioactivity” (p. 47).

The narrative is given additional weight and emotion by being set against collages of material culled from archives, like the first X-ray image and a charcoal rubbing of the front of the Curies’ burial crypt. Particularly effective are the ethereal cyanotype prints created by Redniss that represent for the artist the soft glow of radium that Marie called “spontaneous luminosity.”

By the time the two researchers win their joint Nobel Prize in 1903, readers understand the interconnectedness of their daily lives. Even their notebooks are shared; their handwriting entwined, each bleeding into the other’s. But events inside their little world are to have significant effects on the wider stage. To emphasize this broad reach Redniss periodically pauses the personal story to tell other connected tales: for instance, the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 and the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl. Though some are an unwanted distraction from the unfolding primary story, they nonetheless show how important the Curies’ work has been and continues to be—and they provide a moving complement to the tragedies that befall the couple as the years pass.

The physical toll of their work starts to reveal itself. “Radioactivity had made the Curies immortal,” Redniss writes. “Now it was killing them” (p. 74). Yet Pierre faces a different fate: a freak accident takes his life in 1906. A devastated Marie is forced to continue her work—and her life. She takes as her lover Paul Langevin, a married former student of Pierre’s and another talented scientist. The ensuing scandal temporarily tatters her reputation, and she disavows any connection between her work and her romantic life.

In less sensitive hands such tawdry details might easily lend themselves to a lurid tale, but luckily Redniss doesn’t succumb. Instead Radioactive is a touching, bittersweet look into the lives of the Curies and those whose lives were touched by their work, for better or worse. And if the illustrated biography and its kin, graphic novels and comic books, are mediums not yet familiar to most readers, Radioactive proves the potential for nontraditional texts to create lush and luminous environments where historical narratives are amplified by combining word and image.

Jennifer Dionisio is the associate editor of Chemical Heritage.