Radioactive is quite unlike any book I have ever read—part history, part love story, part art work, part social commentary, and all parts sheer imaginative genius. Put simply, “Radioactive” is an illustrated biography of Marie Curie, the Polish-born, two-time Nobel Prize winner French physicist famous for her work on radioactivity and her equally accomplished husband, Pierre. It covers their childhoods, their headlong love story, their scientific collaboration and the way their toxic discoveries, which included radium and polonium, poisoned them in slow motion. However, that is only one component of the book, and correctly explaining the whole book requires a writer more talented than I.
Much of the story’s tone comes from author/biographer/illustrator Lauren Redniss. Her text runs across and over her spooky, vivid and ethereal art. The story fuses different elements together seamlessly. In addition to her own drawings, “Radioactive” is filled with archival images. One page is a copy of the first X-ray image ever made; another is a copy of a declassified F.B.I. document; another is a series of photographs taken after the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear reactor meltdown, described as showing mutant roses that have become sterile. All this material is woven seamlessly into the wider narrative including quotes from the scientists themselves with ones from the Curies’ own granddaughter, engineering and weapons experts, and even atomic bomb survivors. The book is awash with curious details. At a dinner party Pierre unveiled a small, glowing cylinder of radium for their guests. Marie took to sleeping with a jar of it by her pillow. “Radioactivity had made the Curies immortal. Now it was killing them.”
This book is truly one of a kind. It is one of the most fantastic books-as-object and I highly recommend it to people who love visually stunning books as well as those interested in love stories, science and biographies.
P.S. Last night, I put the book down, turned off the lights and discovered: The book GLOWS IN THE DARK! Extra points for awesomeness.