Curious Discoveries About Marie Curie--An Interview With Lauren Redniss

Lauren Redniss

Lauren Redniss

Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry 100 years ago. She was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and the first woman to become a professor at Paris's famed Sorbonne University. To find out more about Marie Curie, we spoke to Lauren Redniss, a former Fellow of the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, who recently published Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout--a visual and written exploration of Marie Curie's life. Redniss currently has a show at the Library featuring luminous cyanotypes from the book alongside images that inspired her from the NYPL collections.

Visit the online exhibition!

What was the initial inspiration for this project, your book Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout?

I was drawn to Marie Curie’s story because it is full of drama--passion, discovery, tragedy, and scandal. But I also thought the story was an interesting way to look at questions that affect our world right now. Since Marie Curie coined the word "radioactivity" in 1898, we’ve struggled with nuclear-weapons proliferation, we’ve debated the role of radiation in medical treatment, and we’ve considered nuclear energy as an alternative energy source to counter climate change. These questions all have roots in a love story in turn-of-the-century Paris.

As a visual artist, it was an interesting challenge: how to create a visual book about invisible forces, in this case, radioactivity and love.

Can you share a little bit about the process of creating this visual book? What Library collections did you use during your research?

I’m always shifting between the artwork and the writing.

The book’s narrative unfolds as much in the images and the design as in the words. For instance, the book begins with Marie and Pierre’s stories developing on facing pages. The drawings are in black and white. When they meet, for the first time we see them together on the same page--and the book turns to color. So it was fantastic to be able to have access to the Library’s collections of artists’ books, to go to the third floor and look at hand-painted 19th-century travelogues, to sit in the Map Division and look at gorgeous old maps with allegorical drawings of Earth, Wind, Air, and Fire in the corners, to study illuminated manuscripts in the Rare Book Division. The Spencer Collection has a copy of Anna Atkins’s book Photographs of British Algae, which is made up of cyanotype shadowgraphs. This book was a huge inspiration--most of the images in Radioactive are cyanotype prints. The Library has also digitized a ton of material. When I was designing the book’s typeface, I looked at title pages of old manuscripts that are now in the Library’s Digital Gallery.

Please talk about your use of cyanotype in the book.

Cyanotype is a camera-less photographic technique. You expose chemically coated paper to the sun’s UV rays and the prints come out in shades of blue. The brighter the sunlight, the deeper the shade of blue--and the faster the print develops. I chose to make the book’s images as cyanotypes because I thought it added other layers of meaning: concentrated radium--one of the radioactive elements discovered by the Curies--glows a light blue color. In addition, Marie Curie described radium as having “spontaneous luminosity,” and I think cyanotypes capture this feeling of internal glow. Finally, photographic imaging was critical to both the discovery of X-rays and of radioactivity, so it made sense to me that the book’s images would be made with a process based on the idea of exposure.

Can you share a couple of curious discoveries you made about the woman and scientist Marie Curie?

Recently, I was contacted by a relative of Marie Curie’s first love. She wanted to share with me her family’s largely untold story. When Marie Curie was a teenager in Poland called Marya Skłodowska, she worked as a governess to a family that ran a sugar-beet factory outside of Warsaw. She fell in love with the family’s oldest son, who was a mathematics student named Kazimierz. It’s been recorded in biographies of Marie Curie that Kazimierz’s parents objected to the marriage and tore the young couple apart. This relative of Kazimierz’s told me that Marie was quite bohemian in her time with Kazimierz--the unmarried couple shared unchaperoned time at a mountain retreat. She also told me that, in fact, Marie and Kazimierz kept in touch for many years after Marie moved to Paris. Apparently, he helped her with complex mathematical equations related to her research. Pierre and Marie Curie had a famous and celebrated partnership, and after his death, she had a liaison with another great scientist, Paul Langevin. Apparently, even her first companion was an intellectual as well as romantic partner.

Do you have a new project that you can tell us about?

I’m working on a history of weather.

What do you like best about NYPL?

What don’t I like about NYPL! I love simply walking into the Library, experiencing the grandeur of the space, hearing my shoes click on the marble floors, being dwarfed by the murals in the third-floor rotunda. It’s a temple to knowledge and history and science and art--what’s not to like?