I picked up Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie – A Tale of Love and Fallout on a whim. I had an Amazon credit to burn and so I ordered up the book based on a half-read/half-remembered review from somewhere. I thought it would be a cool graphic novel. It turns out it’s not a graphic novel at all. It’s something else entirely. Radioactive is a difficult book to describe, but here’s my best shot: it’s a non-fiction science history biography art project. My mind was blown.
Radioactive succinctly tells the story of Marie and Pierre Curie’s lives together and apart. Both won Nobel prizes. Marie was the first woman to win a Nobel and the first of either gender to win two. Marie’s daughter and son-in-law also won the Nobel. The story would be a happy one if it ended there, but all of them died of cancers caused by their work with radioactive materials. That’s part of the titular fallout of the title. The book also frequently shifts to the larger fallout of the couples work. Nuclear weapons, nuclear waste, victims of radiation and nuclear bombs, nuclear landscapes, and the radiation that we all carry around inside of us as a result of nuclear testing are all a part of the Pandora’s box that the couple innocently opened.
It’s the art project part that sets this book apart. It’s also full of radiation-related ephemera, such as pages from FBI files, esoteric photographs, and maps of the destruction of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the Chernobyl exclusion zones. The real standout are the author’s illustrations and artwork that appear throughout the book. She uses a process called cyanotype printing that makes the art appear luminous. Redniss even created the font used in the book. The letters are non-uniform in size and width and are seldomly placed in book normative rigid line spacing and alignment. The pièce de résistance only made itself apparent when I turned the lights out to go sleep. Elements of the clover glow in the dark. Fantastic.
For a book about the work of two famed scientists, it is Redniss’s non-scientific approach to telling the story that really drives her themes home and gives the book depth, warmth, and humanity. One of the great things about this strange and wonderful book is that it firmly affirms the role of the book as a story-telling medium. Radioactive is not available on the Kindle and would look ridiculous if it did. It’s also not available as an audio book. This is a book that demands to be held and pored over for its endless details. This is a one of a kind book that is simply amazing.
Side note: I am a long time fan of Madame Curie as nerdy as that sounds. Have you seen this image in a header cycling through from time to time at the top of our page?
That’s Marie Curie’s radium burned hands holding open a book next to an Erlenmeyer flask that comes from this portrait.