Sara Latta's Reviews > Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout

Radioactive by Lauren Redniss
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's review
Apr 22, 2011

it was amazing
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"Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie. A Tale of Love and Fallout" (Harper Collins, 2011), by Lauren Redniss, is a fascinating scientific biography of the famous couple and their family. Along with Henri Becquerel, Pierre and Marie were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1903 for their pioneering work in radioactivity (Marie herself coined the word "radioactivity"). Marie won a second Nobel Prize in 1911 for her discovery of radium and polonium; in 1935, their daughter and son-in-law, Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie garnered the Nobel Prize for their discovery of artificial radioactivity.
Redniss interweaves her story of the Curies’ scientific progress with accounts of the many ways--both positive and negative--in which their research has touched our lives. There is a moving profile of a Japanese woman who watched her father die after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima as well as an interview with a young man who was successfully treated for an aggressive tumor with radiation therapy.
"Radioactive" is also a deeply affecting romance. "With the constant companionship that accompanied their research," Redniss writes, "the Curies' love deepened. They cosigned their published findings. Their handwriting intermingle in their notebooks. On the cover of one black canvas laboratory log, the initials "M" and "P" are scripted directly one atop the other." Their romantic and scientific collaboration was cut short in 1906 when Pierre was struck and killed by a horse-drawn carriage. A few years after Pierre's death, Marie had an affair with a married man that provoked such a scandal that she was advised not to attend the Nobel ceremony where she was to accept her second prize (she went anyway). Marie died in 1934 as a result of prolonged exposure to radiation; it surely would have killed Pierre as well if the horse hadn't done so first.
Last, "Radioactive" is a remarkable work of art; it is simply a beautiful book. Redniss illustrates her text with photographs, line drawings, and cyanotope prints that seem to glow with the luminosity of radium. Even the choice of using cyanotype printing ties into the theme of radioactivity. The process uses light-sensitive chemicals that form a compound commonly known as Prussian blue, an approved treatment for exposure to certain types of radioactivity.
There is even an amusing "Radioactive Bestiary and Garden" at the end of the book, featuring (among others) Spider-Man, who gained his superhuman abilities after being bitten by an irradiated spider, and Brazil nuts, the world's most naturally radioactive food.
"Radioactive" is not specifically marketed as a book for young adults, but the science is accessible enough for most teens. Redniss' gorgeous artwork will win over readers with a more artistic bent. This is bound to be one of my favorite books of the year.

Review first published in the News-Gazette, April 24, 2011. For more YA book reviews, please visit my website at

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