Romance and Radium: Emotional Histories of Science

More than a year ago, around the time I wrote a piece on the Marie Curie complex, Leila and I decided that in order for Lady Science to move forward and accomplish the goals we set for the project, we had to stop writing about Marie Curie (and probably Ada Lovelace and Rosalind Franklin). In order to produce the useful frameworks and tools we need to do better history on women in science, we have to get beyond the famous figures and out from under the shadow of their fraught historiography. Very soon after that decision was made, I read Lauren Redniss’ book Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout, and I knew immediately that I wouldn’t be able to keep my promise about laying off the Marie Curie stuff.

Radioactive is a kind of graphic novelization of Marie Curie’s life and her scientific and romantic partnership with Pierre. The story is told both in narrative and in the rich visual language of Redniss’ illustrations. It’s not an obscure work--it won the National Book Prize and Malcolm Gladwell and Richard Rhodes are blurbed on the back cover-- but were it not for a certain eccentric professor of mine, it would never have been seen in the halls and bookshelves of my history of science department. First of all, the cover glows in the dark. Second, it’s full of feelings, which is not something I can say for really anything else on the shelf that Radioactive shares in my office.

Radioactive is a deeply emotional retelling of the Curie story that redresses a lack of intimacy in our cultural memory of this history. Redniss gives equal weight to Marie’s own prowess as an investigator, and her personal life, so that the science is inflected by her romance and partnership with Pierre and placed in the context of the tragedy of his death and her efforts to put her life back together afterward. The book is a portrait of a whole person-- something that is easy to forget about the towering figures of history-- and a reminder that science springs up not from the inevitability of history but from the fallible and fragile lives of human beings.

Redniss’ visual style relies on mixed media, using drawing, collage, and a photographic technique called cyanotype to narrate the story. Cyanotype creates a negative image that Redniss uses to give some scenes a spectral quality that evokes, especially near the end of the book, the properties of radium and the withering effects it had on Marie’s body. At the beginning of the story, Marie and Pierre are lively, bold line drawings on a crisp, white field, animated in their youth and passion. As the story ends, Marie becomes ghostly and immaterial, her features effaced and only her silhouette remains as she nears the end of her life.

The book also interweaves the story of the Curies with the history of radioactive materials and atomic science on a larger scale. Redniss relates the tragedy of the women workers who painted watch dials for the US Radium Corporation and the growing realization of the dangers of radioactive materials. The most affecting of these larger historical connections is the account of Sadae Kasaoka, who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Redniss reproduces Kasaoka’s papercuts which illustrate the injuries sustained by her father that she saw as a small child. A black square of paper is peeled back in one section to reveal red underneath, what happened to her father’s burned skin when Kasaoka touched it.

I have rarely been so moved by a piece of writing and art, and certainly never before by something I read in graduate school. Reading historical writing about the history of science is often an intentionally unemotional affair, and reading about the history of radium or the atomic bomb is often necessarily a clinical experience. As a historian, I am supposed to look at history dispassionately and not let my emotions color the way I construct my interpretation. But I would be lying if I said that emotion played no part in my interest in the past in the first place. Reading about Marie Curie and being enveloped in Redniss’ unique and sensitive visualizations was, for me, a way to connect with this history in a way I had never been able to before, though I was already familiar with all of it. I cried when I looked at Kasaoka’s paper cuts, even though I’ve never been able to muster much emotion when reading about the history of the bombing, other than a principled disgust for nuclear weapons.

Emotion, as we’ve said again and again, is what gets women in trouble in both history and in science. Feelings get in the way of real science and real history, both of which, we are told, require the utmost mental discipline and the good-faith pursuit of perfect objectivity, which is what men can apparently do with their superior rational man brains. But in stripping all the feminine stuff-- emotion, sentiment, romance, passion, and art-- from our understanding of the past, we are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to make a real connection to the past and to cultivate the social and political benefits that can come from such an awareness. I will only ever have the barest understanding of what happened in Hiroshima, but I would rather that understanding was filled out by the richness and empathy that Redniss evokes than only the clinical and technical understanding that I can get from most history. Life, death, love, and tragedy- this is the stuff of life. Whether that life belonged to the most famous scientist of her time or a small child who witnessed unspeakable destruction, these are the things we should strive to grasp in our work.


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