A Mostly Glowing Review of “Radioactive” by Lauren Redniss

Radioactive (!t Books, an imprint of Harper Collins, 2011) by Lauren Redniss lies on the fringes of the “graphic novel” continuum—it is a storybook for grownups, a stunning combination of words and pictures depicting the lives of Marie & Pierre Curie (as well as Curie’s later lover Paul Langevin) and their scientific legacy. The book does not employ comics grammar and syntax (e.g. panels, word balloons, caption boxes), but rather openly manipulates and juxtaposes text with what might best be described as eerily primitive drawings.

Redniss’ drawings are infused with a kind of right-brained quality. There is a dreamy, ethereal style to Redniss’ work that reminds me equally of David B. and Modigliani.

The New York edition of The Huffington Post has a remarkable article describing an exhibition of Lauren Redniss’ work, as well as artifacts from the library that influenced her research. The author explains that she desired to make a “…visual book about invisible forces,” hence the Radioactive’s byline, “A Tale of Love and Fallout.”

In a collaboration between the New York Public Library and the Parsons School of Design, fourteen of Redniss’ students worked on building a website to promote Radioactive. There are some brilliant interactive multimedia resources on this site: check out the “curiograph” to create your own facsimile of a cyanotype print!

Cyanotype printing involves applying the transparency of an image to chemically-treated light-sensitive paper, which is then exposed to sunlight. A chemical process occurs, which makes any areas that have been exposed to light turn blue.

If you have this book, try viewing the cover in a pitch-black room and you will see that it possesses its own luminous qualities!

Radioactive would read largely as a linear recounting of the lives Marie and Pierre Curie, were it not for the generous inclusion of information interspersed throughout on later and concurrent developments in nuclear science and technology. Much of this information is based on firsthand research conducted by the author:

I traveled to the Nevada Test Site to talk to weapons specialists. I went to Hiroshima to interview atomic bomb survivors. I spoke with an oncologist exploring innovative radiation treatment in San Bernadino, California and the Idaho National Laboratory’s Director of the Center for Space Nuclear Research about how nuclear power and propulsion can enable space exploration – and crystal cities on the moon,” enthuses Redniss. “A biologist studying the land around the Chernobyl nuclear plant talked with me about his research on the animal populations in the 30 years since the disaster there. In Warsaw I visited the house where Marie Curie was born. I interviewed Marie and Pierre Curie’s granddaughter at the Curie Institute in Paris (Gayle Snible, New York Huffington Post, January 14 2011).

For the most part, the tangents work magic—they embellish and accentuate the Curies’ central storyline. The one spread where I felt that the connection between past and present didn’t coalesce was on pp. 70-71. “Curietherapie” was introduced in 1900 as an experimental treatment on “…mice, guinea pigs, and rabbits (Redniss, 70).” Radiation treatment on humans followed soon afterwards. Now switch to 2001, with Daniel Fass describing cranial radiation for on-Hodgkins lymphoma. However fascinating the description itself is, the connection between “curietherapie” and thermoplastic radiation was not made explicit, and I was left wondering as a reader whether I was missing something.

Similarly, although the transition from Pierre Curie’s death to commentary on the Three Mile Island crisis was concresced through a description of sociologist Charles Perrow’s “normal accident,” the stretch left me questioning how much the two events actually have in common.

The colours in Radioactive are at once brave and stark, and are rendered with exquisite grace. The washes used for the spreads on each chapter title page are remarkable for their bold use of “white space.” The delicate font used in the book—Eusapia LR—a creation of Redniss’ own, based on typefaces discovered “…on the title pages of manuscripts in the New York Public Library” (Reniss, 201) complements Redniss’ images seamlessly.

Radioactive reminded me that what I have always loved about the history of science is the potential for storytelling that all too often lies dormant beneath the surface veneer of a strict adherence to methodology and theoretical proofs. Redniss has brought the human element in science to the fore, with all its glorious messiness and mishaps.

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