2011 National Book Award non-fiction nominee: Lauren Redniss, Radioactive
November 15, 2011 § 1 Comment
Encouraged by his father, a physician in the lab of neuroanatomist Louis Pierre Gratiolet, labeler of brain lobes, Pierre tracked salamanders and frogs in the forests outside Paris. He was a draydreamer; it was suggested he was perhaps even a bit dim. PIERRE: “I can’t let my head go with every breeze, losing it to the slightest breath it meets.” He began studying Latin and math, and soon dispelled the early doubts about his intelligence. By fourteen, he was working to expand the mathematical theory of determinants into the third dimension. By sixteen Pierre had a university degree. At twenty-one he published a paper on heat waves. After joining the Sorbonne’s laboratory of mineralogy, he began an extended study of crystals. He was fascinated by the symmetries he found in crystalline structures, mirroring spun out in all directions. (p. 16)
At first glance, it would be tempting to dismiss Lauren Redniss’ Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout as a cutesy survey-level biography of two of the most prominent scientists of the early 20th century, leavened with illustrations meant to take the place of “serious, scholarly work.” Such a presumption would be wildly off the mark, for Redniss adroitly mixes in biographical information about the Curies, evocative illustrations full of glowing colors that remind readers of the radioactive elements that they devoted their lives to studying, and concise yet detailed looks not just at their time but also at the world shaped by their discoveries.
Radioactive is a survey-level biography, but that is not said with a sneer or dismissive tone. Rather, it is a well-designed illustrated non-fiction that tells a compelling story of their lives and how their personal lives intertwined with their research. Redniss’ illustrations contain a sense of foreboding. particularly when we see x-ray-like drawings of the two near passages describing their experiments on themselves and others using radioactive elements such as polonium and radium, the latter which they discovered and named. She mixes in reproductions of letters, both from the Curies’ time and from redacted documents related to the later American research during the Manhattan Project, to provide an even greater sense of verisimilitude to this combination of a love story, tragedy, and scientific history.
Histories of even the most intriguing characters and situations risk being tedious affairs if the historian is not able to present his/her information in an enticing package. Radioactive works as a history because Redniss not only provides an eye-appealing illustration-filled layout, but also she carefully researched the information and provides simple and yet direct social commentaries on the prejudices Marie Curie faced, both before, during, and after Pierre’s accidental death, as well as remarking upon the consequences of their research in the century following their initial discoveries.
Although, as noted above, some readers may find the presentation to be “cutesy” and not of a “serious” nature, Radioactive for the most part balances the needs of providing a good introduction for those readers unfamiliar with the histories of the Curies with those who want to see their stories placed within a broader historical context. While there were a few times, namely during the latter part of Marie Curie’s life, where I would have liked more discussion of how she interacted with fellow scientists (and lovers), for the most part I thought Redniss did an excellent job in covering the topic in a fashion that mostly sates the curiosities of both causal readers and those who are more used to scholarly tomes without leaving the sense that she either dumbed down everything or overloaded the book with endnotes. Radioactive is a very good biography, one that I can understand being on the National Book Award shortlist for non-fiction.