In 1891, 24 year old Marie, née Marya Sklodowska, moved from Warsaw to Paris, where she found work in the laboratory of Pierre Curie, a scientist engaged in research on heat and magnetism. They fell in love. They took their honeymoon on bicycles. They expanded the periodic table, discovering two new elements with startling properties, radium and polonium. They recognized radioactivity as an atomic property, heralding the dawn of a new scientific era. They won the Nobel Prize. Newspapers mythologized the couple’s romance, beginning articles on the Curies with “Once upon a time…” Then, in 1906, Pierre was killed in a freak accident. Marie continued their work alone. She won a second Nobel Prize in 1911, and fell in love again, this time with the married physicist Paul Langevin. Scandal ensued. Duels were fought.
But I was also interested in the way the Marie and Pierre’s story could illuminate questions that resonate far beyond the life of the couple.
In the century since the Curies began their work, the world has struggled with nuclear weapons proliferation, debated the role of radiation in medical treatment, and pondered nuclear energy as a solution to climate change. These debates all have roots in a love story in 19th Century Paris.
To research the book, I traveled to Hiroshima to interview atomic bomb survivors, to the Nevada Test Site outside of Las Vegas to talk with weapons specialists, to Warsaw to see the house where Marie Curie was born, to the Curie Institut in Paris to interview the Curie’s granddaughter. 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 built on the moon.
I made the artwork for the book using a process called “cyanotype.” Cyanotype is a camera‐less photographic technique in which paper is coated with light‐sensitive chemicals. When the chemically-treated paper is exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, it turns a deep blue color. Photographic imaging was critical to both the discovery of X-rays and of radioactivity, so it made sense to me to use a process based on the idea of exposure to create the images in Radioactive.
For the text, I designed a font based on the title pages of 18th and 19th Century manuscripts in the New York Public Library’s collections. It is named Eusapia LR for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies attended. Yup.
The cover of Radioactive is printed with glow-in-the-dark ink. You can see pages from the book here.
Press and reviews here.