by Jill Schneiderman, guest contributor
Radioactivity. Life. Death. These are front-and-center in my thoughts these days as I contemplate the fallout from the nuclear plant meltdown generated by power outages, triggered by a tsunami set off by an earthquake in Japan. Amidst these events, I turned my attention to reading Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss.
Currently, the book is on exhibit at the New York Public Library. The author, an artist, teaches documentary, drawing, graphic novels, and printmaking at the Parsons School of Design, so one might be excused from not immediately recognizing the logic of her having written a book on the Curies (who shared with Henri Becquerel the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics for their research on radiation.) But there’s little that is logical about the way this story reveals itself and that’s what makes it beautiful and such a pleasure to read.
The book is a piece of art composed of images and words. Although told in roughly chronological fashion, mostly the story has long tendrils of other tales. In this regard, as well as others, I suspect it will be of interest to people fascinated by the intersections of science and mind.
Here’s what I liked about it. To me, the format of Radioactive mimics the way a mind — mine at least — works. All of us dedicated to a regular sitting practice know that just a few breaths into a sit, the mind is likely to take an excursion, follow an idea. After some time we wake up to the fact of our distraction and come back to focusing on the breath. It is in this manner that the story of the Curies, their colleagues, friends, enemies, lovers, and offspring unfolds. Unlike histories of science or biographies of scientists that are so often linear and wordy, this one provides multiple, pursuable pathways.
Even if they know little else, most people know that Marie Skłodowska Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize. They may also know that her first Nobel in physics was followed by a second in 1911 in chemistry for the discovery of the elements radium and polonium.
But the story of Marie and Pierre Curie is much more interesting than that plain fact. It involves a stimulating partnership of spouses engaged by the same scientific questions, infatuation with the invisible, Marie’s scandalous love affair after her husband’s accidental death by horse-drawn carriage, an ongoing commitment to scientific and medical investigations that ultimately killed her, and offspring — both biological and scientific — who have carried on their work.
In Radioactive, entwined images and prose create a fabric that relates the stories of the Curies to more modern-day concerns: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and two World Wars. Redniss indulges her readers with haunting cyanotype and archival images offered up in nonlinear fashion; this is a boon for right-brainers such as I whose minds tend toward wandering.
A most fascinating facet of the book tells of the Curie’s explorations in Spiritualism — a movement that suggested the possibility of contact with the divine. As Redniss tells it:
"Electricity, radio, the telegraph, the X-ray, and now, radioactivity — at the turn of the twentieth century a series of invisible forces were radically transforming daily life. These advances were dazzling and disorienting: for some, they blurred the boundary between science and magic…. Spiritualists claimed that clairvoyants possessed ‘X-gazes,’ and that photographic plates placed on the forehead could record vital forces of the brain, or ‘V-rays.’"
The Curies and their circle — including leading artists, writers, and scientists such as Edvard Munch, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henri Poincare, Alexander Graham Bell — participated in the Spiritualist séances of Italian medium Eusapia Palladino and considered it possible to find in Spiritualism the origin of unknown energy that might relate to radioactivity. In fact, as Susan Quinn recounts in Marie Curie: A Life, just prior to his death, Pierre Curie wrote to physicist Louis Georges Gouy about his last séance with Palladino, “There is here, in my opinion, a whole domain of entirely new facts and physical states in space of which we have no conception.”
Both scientists and Spiritualists believed that there was much that exists in the world that cannot be seen by the naked eyes of humans.
Radioactive is a story of mystery and magic as well as a history of science and invention. It shows how science, so often thought of as motivated by passionate rationality, is equally about marvelous ambiguity. The Curies, perhaps influenced by their encounters with Spiritualism, devoted their lives to the search for evidence of phenomena they could not see but that they believed existed. The implications of what they found — the good and the bad, medical innovation and nuclear proliferation — they couldn’t fully anticipate.
A recent New York Times article about nuclear energy, “Preparing for Everything, Except the Unknown,” states the obvious: experts say it is impossible to prepare for everything. As a mindfulness practitioner, I’d like to offer a corollary to that statement: when we sit seemingly doing nothing, plenty happens — we don’t see it, but we sense it. Redniss’s history of the lives of Marie and Pierre Curie inspires me as a scientist to continue to pursue my mindfulness practice.
Jill S. Schneiderman is Professor of Earth Science at Vassar College. She’s also the editor of and contributor to For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design and The Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable Planet. She blogs at Shambhala SunSpace and Earth Dharma.
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