Radiant science and science-writing

DE RERUM NATURA - Maria Isabel Garcia () - April 5, 2012 - 12:00am

I get high on every good science book but imagine my spirits on a projectile with a radiant book on science. A month or so ago, I read a book that literally glowed, in the dark, and metaphorically even in the light with other science books. I am talking about “Radioactive” by Lauren Redniss (HarperCollins, NY: 2011). It is the story of Marie Curie, told in words, dye, paintings and sketches. It is not a chronology of events but a story of junctions and connections between the things that happened in the lives of the Curies, individually or as a couple, and other events that happened even after the lifetimes of the Curies.

A good friend gifted me with it and I did not stop reading it until I finished it on the same day. After I turned the last page, I swept my hand across the back cover and noticed some bulging imprints which were part of the exquisite book design. Then I placed it on my desk and turned off my bed light. And then something happened. The figure of Marie Curie, with her head looking back and hair in a bun, on the front cover glowed and so did two small figures, of a man and a woman close to each other. I turned to the back cover and the imprints which my hands felt earlier also glowed.  This book on radioactivity glowed!

I said to myself — she thought of everything! I was referring to Redniss, the author of the book. She was the consummate science writer — she could think clearly, make dramatic connections between science and the rest of the universe of things, and even paint beautifully! She used special materials and a laborious process to print the pages of her book. She used all that to tell the story of how Marie and Pierre Curie met, loved, passionately worked and lived science, died, and how even after their deaths, Pierre (1906) and Marie (1934), the world celebrated their scientific spirit.

Pierre and Marie Curie, with Henri Becquerel, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel.” Becquerel published his observations resulting from when he left a nugget of uranium on top of a photographic plate which resulted in a glow. It was the Curies who pursued the phenomenon of radioactivity further with Marie Curie winning another Nobel Prize in 1911, this time for Chemistry for the discovery of radium and polonium. Redniss noted how the scientific life of the two were so entwined that they “…cosigned their published findings. Their handwritings intermingle in their notebooks... and on the cover of one black canvas lab log, the initials ‘M’ and ‘P’ are scripted directly on atop the other. Two Nobel prizes between the couple and even a third later on after Marie Curie’s death for her daughter, Irene, and son-in-law Joliot-Curie (yes, he took on her wife’s name) for their discovery of artificial radioactivity.”

The book is about the inner life of a couple, both imbued with a deep scientific spirit that inhabited them till the end of their lives. This inner life had a weight of life that was as inviting to know as the glow of radioactivity that they worked with. Redniss contained this glow and preserved it in this book, forever.

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For comments, e-mail dererumnaturastar@hotmail.com.

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