This weekend was the 66th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima at 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945 which instantly killed an estimated 70,000 people. So it seemed an appropriate time to revisit Lauren Redniss’ book, Radioactive, Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout.
As much as I love my Kindle there are certain books it can’t replace and this is one of them. For starters, the cover of the book glows in the dark, and secondly, part of the beauty of the book is being able to look at Redniss’ fantastic art work against the layout of words on the physical page in a typeface that she invented.
A book about the discovery of radiation cannot miss out Hiroshima and Redniss interviews Sade Kasakoa, who was 13 at the time of the bombing, and the book includes pictures of the paper cut-outs that Kasakoa made to illustrate her father’s injuries:
My father, lying on a door board, looked dead. His face was swollen and his clothes burned off, leaving him naked. I could identify him just by his voice .. His body was burned not only on the surface but also inside….
Then I looked up and saw a strange scene. People, whose bodies looked whitish, had their hands up in front of their chests with something tattered hanging from them. They were staggering in procession toward the military hospital, covered in ash. That tattered thing was their peeling skin.
However the book begins in 1911 with a lecture on radium by dancer Loïe Fuller, before the world had witnessed the potential destructive power of radiation and radium is seen as a form of nature’s magic.
Redniss then uses her artistic talents to illustrate and illuminate the history of radiation, the history of the Curies and their passion for discovery, which came together in their passion for one another:
With the constant companionship that accompanied their research, the Curies’ love deepened. They cosigned their published findings. Their handwritings 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.
They had a daughter, Irene, and when she was two, Marie Curie began her research into radioactivity – a word Marie coined – as she changed the foundation of chemistry.
In 1903 Marie Curie became the first woman in France to receive a doctorate and in 1905 the Curies collected their Nobel Prize. After Pierre’s death in 1906, Marie was offered her late husband’s post at the Sorbonne and she became the first woman professor in the 650-year history of the French university. In 1911 Marie Curie became the first person, man or woman, to win a second Nobel Prize.
In 1935, a year and a half after Marie Curie’s death, Irene and her husband Frederic Joliot-Curie, won the Nobel prize for their discovery of artificial radiation as they worked together, just like her parents.
This may not be surprising as cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstander points out in the book that in some ways, love is just like radiation:
the key question is, no matter how much you absorb of another person, can you have absorbed so much of them that when that primary brain perishes, you can feel that that person did not totally perish from the earth …because they live on in a ‘second neural home’?
In the wake of a human being’s death, what survives is a set of afterglows, some brighter and some dimmer, in the collective brains of those who were dearest to them…Though the primary brain has been eclipsed, there is, in whose who remain…a collective corona that still glows.