I first saw “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout” in an expat bookstore in Belgium. The book is vibrant and colorful and intriguing. After I got back, the book was still on my mind, and I purchased it. The book is an art-collage biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, and their Nobel-prize winning work on radiation. Their work is so influential that they named several elements (radium and polonium). A unit of radioactivity, a Curie, bears their name, and the element Curium was named for them.
Every page of this book is truly beautiful. The colors are deep and wonderful. Somewhere in the book, the author describes the techniques she used, and how they were specifically inspired by radioactivity, but I have not found this description on the web. This book is much more beautiful than most graphic novels, and I love that it is about science. The book makes Marie Curie especially relatable. She’s still the most famous female scientist a century after her great discoveries. She comes across as driven but human.
Here, then, is the big caveat in my review. The author relates a mostly negative view of radioactivity and nuclear advances. The damage to Marie and Pierre’s bodies, as well as their daughter, is given in detail. The bombing of Japan, the three-mile island incident, and Chernobyl are covered in great detail.
I found it incredibly saddening reading about Marie Curie, the most recognized female scientist perhaps ever, and then to read essentially a condemnation of the outcomes of her work. I also think this condemnation was unfair. To write the story of coal or gasoline would be to include tales of mesothelioma, ground water pollution, and air pollution bad enough in many parts of the century as to blot out the sun. The motors of wind power require mining for difficult-to-acquire materials, which comes from messy mining. No form of power comes without its evils just yet. That’s why we have scientists like the Curies, to keep stabbing away at the problem. Nuclear energy frightens people more than other forms of energy, but I think this is mostly an irrational fear. A simple Geiger counter reveals any stray radiation. Do you know when there are trace amounts of benzene about (a common hydrocarbon in oil)? Or other carcinogens? Hundreds of Superfund sites exist across the USA, many of them from hydrocarbon contamination. These sites can take decades to remediate.
Nonetheless, this book is beautiful and worth reading. The writing about Marie and Pierre Curie as people was wonderful. For those unfamiliar with the science of radioactivity, perhaps it will be a more inspiring read than it was for me.