As Harold Varmus put it in late January, before a full house at New York Public Library: Have people name two scientists and most will say Einstein and Madame Curie. Varmus, who directs the National Cancer Institute and shares a Nobel Prize for cancer research, was speaking with the artist and writer Lauren Redniss about her new book, Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Fallout. The talk coincided with an exhibit about the author’s Radioactive project, which runs in NYPL’s Stokes Gallery until mid April.
Under the glowing faux skylight of the Celeste Bartos Forum, Varmus asked Redniss about research for the book, and about the volume’s alluring, eerily illuminative images, produced with a method called cyanotype printing. Redniss began a Cullman Center Fellowship at the library in 2008, and projections showed works from the collections that she melded into her illustrations. She spoke of an early love lost by Marie Curie, née Sklodowska—the romance nixed by his well-to-do parents—before she left Russian-occupied Warsaw and its clandestine Flying University, to study in Paris. She finished degrees at the Sorbonne in mathematics, chemistry, and physics, subjects her dad taught in Poland, and received the first doctorate given to a woman in France. About a dozen years later, in 1906, the institution made her its first woman professor, offering her husband’s position after Pierre had been killed near the Pont Neuf by a wagon hauling tons of military gear.
During the Q&A, a man recalled seeing the green-yellow image of his foot bones at shoe shops. Fluoroscope cabinets were supposed to improve shoe fitting, but mostly amused kids with free x-ray scans, and there were about 10,000 of them operating nationwide in the 1950s. Varmus declared it a good bet those devices are history, as they dosed radiation—which had been the crux of the Curies’ joint Nobel in physics in 1903, once they’d painstakingly isolated radium and polonium, and Curie coined the term “radioactivity.” Redniss was asked if Marie Curie liked Chopin, who’d left partitioned Poland half a century before she did. Her response was agile: She hadn’t discovered her subject’s musical tastes, but knew Curie loved and recited poetry, and composed verses in her notebooks.
In February, on a visit to the Radioactive exhibit, reproductions from those notebooks had my companion wondering how charged the originals remain. Having read that Curie’s cookbook is in lead storage, I saw her point. On one wall, in Redniss’s depiction of the Curies’ lab, faceted objects poised like gems in eggcups; across the hall, more of those elemental fetishes appeared in a spread of the royal dinner when Curie was awarded her second Nobel, in chemistry. (The first to receive two, only she and Linus Pauling have earned Nobels in separate fields.) On the panel where the aspiring scientist prepares for the Paris train (“My head is so full of plans that it seems aflame”), building facades resembled Freta Street in Warsaw, where she was born. Twilight blue panels showed the couple at work as the 20th century began, in a cramped lab near where, in a few years, Picasso would paint “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.”
In book form, Radioactive establishes traction before it’s opened. Maize, offset with fungal greens, tones the front cover’s pictorial ground, and flywheel lines in the bun of Curie’s hair waver like a Brice Marden stick painting. (She’s turned away tantalizingly, a pose that recalls Andrew Wyeth’s fraught landscape, “Christina’s World,” and Gerhard Richter’s portrait of his daughter Betty.) The back cover, on a field of deep blue, blurts racy plot twists (“Duels! Mystery! Revelation!”), and gives a glimpse of the spare hatching Redniss touches along her characters’ eyelid rims. Plus the cover images grip at the fingertips, like worn sharkskin or spent adhesive. And glow in the dark.
Redniss, whose haunting illustrated texts appear on the op-ed page of the New York Times, builds investigative appeal, changing paces and synchs with tale-telling and layout. After a harrowing nine-page overview of the bombing of Hiroshima, the author returns to her protagonists with a three-sentence line across a white spread, as Pierre notes the lack of night in Sweden in June. A less elegant weaving of story with contemporary concerns comes later, with a page on Pan-Tilt-Zoom video surveillance in U.S. nuclear weapon complexes. She created the typeface based on examples in the NYPL archives, and the letters lilt across each paragraph. (My companion at the exhibit, who published a book on graphics, leaned in to dots over the letter “i” to discern if the typeface was handwritten.) Redniss named her results Eusapia LR, after the Spiritualist medium whose séances drew future Nobel laureates including the Curies and Paul Langevin, who after Pierre’s death became Curie’s scientific partner and lover.
That liaison with Langevin blew up the conservative press when his spouse had the couple’s letters filched. The furor occurred just as Curie was awarded her second Nobel. From Sweden, committee members asked her not to attend the ceremony, but Einstein helped bolster her in the fray. Redniss’s account of dinner with King Gustaf V is a delicious unstitching of moral conventions. During the First World War, Curie developed x-ray field labs and a fleet of mobile vans, dubbed petite Curies, which she and her first daughter, Irene, helped man. Romance with Langevin didn’t last, but later he recommended Frédéric Joliot as lab assistant. Joliot and Irene fell in love, were married, and were awarded a joint Nobel for their work on artificial radioactivity.
Redniss spoke on the phone about starting in to the life and accomplishments of Radioactive’s heroine. “I knew her name, and knew that she and Pierre had this romantic and scientific partnership,” she said. “But that’s really all I knew.” She was drawn through three-and-a-half years of work by what she termed “the hunch that contemporary issues of weaponry, medicine, energy, and their implications that we grapple with today, all link back to this romance in 19th century Paris.” Asked if Curie’s cookbook is in fact in lead storage, she said “It’s not just her cookbook. Their laboratory notebooks still contain radioactive contamination. You are asked to sign a waiver, and you look at them under protected circumstances.”
The cyanotype printing method that fixes Radioactive’s visual core “is a camera-less photographic technique that uses a light-sensitive chemical solution on paper,” she said. “When that solution is exposed to UV [ultraviolet] rays, they react with the chemicals in the paper and turn the paper a deep blue, called Prussian blue.” Creating cyanotypes “is a process based on the idea of exposure. The history of the x-ray, the discovery of radioactivity, the science of radiation—all of these things have to do with exposure.” The process is often used for shadowgraphs—“what Man Ray would call a Rayogram”—with three-dimensional objects exposed for the inverse of their silhouette. In Redniss’s approach, she made negatives from her drawings, using those to create the image. Aesthetically, she felt that the white boundary line “captures what Marie Curie describes as radium’s spontaneous luminosity, its internal glow.”
One of Radioactive’s final spreads is titled “Radioactive Bestiary and Garden.” Entries include mutant flowers from Three Mile Island and the bacteria Deinococcus radiodurans, the likely last survivor of nuclear catastrophe (not cockroaches). An ivory-tusked elephant talisman was a gift from Warren Harding in 1929. Harding had presented her with a gram of radium donated by U.S. women to help fund the Radium Institute in newly liberated Poland. Redniss saw the elephant in the vitrines of Curie’s birthplace museum, just up the broad cobbled rise of Freta Street from Warsaw’s Old Town. “After imagining these larger than life figures,” she said, “there is that tiny, tender, precious thing that went from one palm to another palm. It’s really touching.”
The Maria Sklodowska-Curie Museum was established on Freta Street in 1967 by the Polish Chemical Society. In December, I returned up an inner stairwell to the first-floor apartment where she spent her first year. Entry posters with Curie’s photo already announced events of International Chemistry Year 2011. The rear gallery displays lab equipment and multilingual videos. The Curies’ second daughter gets her due: Ève’s war correspondence was edged out for a Pulitzer in 1944 by Ernie Pyle; her bio of her mom took a National Book Award and was filmed, with Greer Garson in the lead—and her husband directed UNICEF and accepted its Nobel in 1965. A tiny balcony overlooks pedestrians and slow vehicles on Freta. The three- and four-floor buildings lining it have been re-created, down to baroque window pediments and trompe l’oeil adornments, as have the Catholic cathedrals down the rise. Freta, the heart of the six-century-old New Town, was destroyed by the Germans in 1944 to conclude their brutal occupation, as was almost all of Warsaw. (See Smithsonian’s January issue for Warsaw’s current crop of “starchitect” skyscrapers.)
The Radium Institute, on Wawelska Avenue in south-central Warsaw, opened in 1932, two years before Curie died from aplastic anemia probably caused by radiation exposure. It was directed by her physician sister, Bronislawa. In their youth, she’d been first to leave for studies in Paris (this was a decade after Jozef Korzeniowski left Poland to become Joseph Conrad, also because of Russian interference), with Maria sending part of her earnings until she could follow. Renamed the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Institute of Oncology, a statue was unveiled before the massive building in 1935. Curie’s early love, mentioned by Redniss at her NYPL talk, had become the eminent mathematician Kazimierz Zorawski, and taught at Warsaw Polytechnic’s impressive campus, east of the Institute. It’s said that he’d sit by the statue in his old age.
Radioactive is published by HarperCollins. The New York Public Library exhibit closes April 17, with a site done in collaboration with Lauren Redniss and her design students at Parsons: http://exhibitions.nypl.org/radioactive/