Saturday, March 10, 2012

TED Book Club Selection: Radioactive

This book was in the latest mailing of the TED Book Club.  It was a quick, enjoyable and informative read.

Radioactive, by Laura Redniss, is two stories entwined.  One story is a tale of scientific discovery.   The other is the personal story of the lives of Pierre and Marie, especially the lusty Marie.

Pierre Curie was an established scientist before Marie arrived in Paris from Poland to study under him.  He had published breakthroughs work in the field of magnetism and with a student was the first person to discover nuclear energy.  

Pierre and Marie were a magical scientific partnership, winning a Nobel Prize for Physics, along with Becquerel, for their research on the phenomena of radiation.  Marie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize.  After Pierre died in a carriage accident at the age of 46, Marie continued her scientific career and became the first woman to be appointed a professor at the Sorbonne.  She was awarded a second Nobel prize for Chemistry for the discovery of the elements polonium (named after her native Poland) and radium.  Marie was begged not to go to Stockholm to receive her second Nobel prize, because her affair with Paul Langevin, Pierre Curie's former student, and a married man, had become public.  However, she went anyway and was suitably feted.  She was a gutsy as well as a lusty woman.

The character that dominates this book, ostensibly about both Curies is definitely Marie.  Marie came from a Polish family that had lost much because of belonging to Polish resistance and scraped together money as a governess to get to Paris to study, where she earned both a Physics and a Mathematics degree from the Sorbonne.  She had participated in the secret Floating University in Poland before leaving for France.  She achieved so many firsts as a woman scientist, and ultimately died from the effects of radiation she had suffered over her long career.  She is the only woman to be buried in the Pantheon in Paris on her own merits. 

Both Curie daughters also dedicated their lives to science.  Her daughter Irene won the Nobel Prize jointly with her husband, continuing the family tradition of partnership at home and in the lab.  Her other daughter became a biochemist.

Interwoven with the story of the Curies are many flash forwards to the ultimate uses of nuclear energy, which ultimately evolved from their work.  I couldn't decide if these added to the impact of the story, or whether they were just distractions.  However, I found the story of the Curies, and especially Marie, fascinating.  Certainly I knew roughly of her accomplishments, but they were certainly more monumental than I had realized.

The pages of the book consist of print against a backdrop of art work by Lauren Redniss, as shown in this sample page.  Different pages are different colours, and therefore have different coloured fonts.  Redniss designed a new font for the book.  For me, all these efforts did not enhance the book at all.  I wasn't particularly fond of the art, the font was not particularly graceful to read, and the reversed out print is not easy to read pages at a time.

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