books,  history,  science

learning about Marie Curie and radioactivity

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As I was preparing to write that blog post about comic books, there was a day when I asked my husband to grab some more comic books when he goes to the library. One of the books he brought back was called Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss. It was from the adult graphic novel section, and it isn’t exactly a comic book. It’s an artistic exploration of the Curie’s life and also of the “fallout” of their discovery of radioactivity.

Radioactive: a Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren RednissThe book tells how Marie and husband met, and how they grew in fame but suffered ill health problems. It describes a little more graphically than I’d like the carriage accident that cost Pierre his life and then goes on to talk about Marie’s love affair with another scientists, and how it tarnished her reputation. Her reputation was improved during WWI when her x-rays proved so useful in helping determine what needs to be done to help an injured person. It talks about her daughters and her daughter Irene’s discovery and then Marie’s death. But interspersed throughout all the life story are little other stories, like the way the environment is coping in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster area, or a story of the nuclear test sites outside Las Vegas, or how Dr. Jonas Frisen used the carbon 14 released into the atmosphere during the cold war to discover that heart cells do regenerate.

Radioactive is a graphic novel that jumps around telling about the Curie's but also about the "fallout" of their discoveries.By jumping back and forth the position of different stories in the book give the story meaning. The story of the partial environmental recovery in Chernobyl is placed right after Pierre’s death, starting on a page talking about Marie’s attempts to recover and rebuild her life after that disaster. Marie’s death from radiation poisoning is put in direct contrast with the story of the Merry Widow Health Mine in Montana where people travel to treat their diseases by breathing in air contaminated by radon (with levels 300x the dose-level that the US Surgeon General deems unsafe). I appreciate the way the stories contrast.

The book is from the adult section of the library and it contains mild nudity and reference to sex.  Some of the descriptions – particularly that of the carriage accident and of the bombing of Hiroshima are gruesome. But at the same time there is much in the book that could be shared with children. It also has details that many other books would leave out, but that I find fascinating, like a section on the Spiritualist movement that started in the middle of the 19th century and how science tied in with this: “If invisible light could pass through flesh and expose the human skeleton, was it so fantastical to believe in levitation, in telekinesis, in communicating with the dead?” What we believe is possible is shaped by the interplay of so many things around us – including the technological advances, and how society relates to those.

We tend to take it as a given that people would have been delighted with electric light when it was first available, but many thought it too harsh and blinding. Robert Louis Stevenson described it as “such a light as this should shine only on murders and public crime, or along the corridors of lunatic asylums, a horror to heighten horrors.” One marketer of radium paint believed it would replace the harshness of electric lighting. “The time will doubtless come, when you will have in your own house a room lighted entirely by radium. The light thrown off by radium paint on walls and ceilings would in color and tone be like soft moonlight.”

We also borrowed from the library the movie: Marie Curie: More Than Meets the Eye. This is a children’s movie about two children in Paris during WWI. They are convinced that Marie Curie must be a spy, only to eventually learn about her x-ray machine and how it can help. The title “more than meets the eye” refers both to Marie being more than the lady they see her as and also to her exploring the nature of atoms, and how the material things around us are made up of more than we can see.

My children know that radioactivity can be dangerous, so they were concerned at various points during the movie that the children in the story would be harmed by the radioactivity they are exposed to. It was interesting trying to assure them that they shouldn’t worry about it, despite the fact that now a days those actions would be considered unsafe.  Yes, it would not be safe, but no, it isn’t instantly deadly either, except when it is, and… well… its a movie, don’t worry about it. How does one explain the idea that a certain level of imperfection in our life is okay? It’s a lesson relevant to those who obsess over “the dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables.

The movie, with its focus on the diagnostic powers of the x-ray, provided an interesting contrast to the book, which focuses on the deadly disasters released into the world by research which Marie Curie, her daughter and son-in-law helped to move along. Her son-in-law’s discoveries were referenced to in the letter from Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt urging FDR to speed up research on the atomic bomb. So the question is, how far of responsibility does a scientist have really, for where their inventions go?

Better for children is a book called The Explosion Zone: Curie and the Science of Radioactivity by Ian Graham. Though not a comic book it has comic book like characters in it, telling the story of Marie Curie with little “Here’s the Science” notes on the side explaining about radioactivity. In the introduction the book sums up the results of Marie’s studies as “she opened up a completely new branch of science that led to nuclear power stations, radiation treatments for cancer, and a huge advance in our understanding of atoms.”

As well as the children’s book, the movie and the adult graphic novel, I borrowed from my local library several other books about Marie Curie and her time period, so that I could comb them for other stories to share with my children.  One of the books talks about how in 1903 Marie won the Nobel Prize, together with her husband and Henri Becquerel. It was the same year she completed her doctoral examination. She had a teaching job and was caring for her six year old daughter. Her husband was also teaching, and they were still broke doing their research from a leaky shed. It was not an easy life for her.Marie Curie

Marie Curie was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize and the French Academy of Science had tried to deprive her of that by attributing all of the Curies’ work to Pierre. A member of the Swedish Academy of Science heard about this and Pierre was informed. He insisted that their work be recognized together, as it was eventually. At that point the Curies were both too ill and broke to travel to pick up the prize, but were grateful for the money included in it. They believed that science should be for the good of all and not for commercial gain so they had published without patenting, and refused commercial sources of income for their work, meaning they were grateful when they won money for it and when they were given better positions with labortory space. Marie thought it a great compliment to call someone “disinterested.”

All of the various books about Marie mention her naming the first element she discovered as polonium after her native country, Poland, but it wasn’t until reading Grand Obsession: Madame Curie and Her World by Rosaylnd Pelaum that I started to get a sense of how important Poland was to her. As a child she learned Polish history in school despite it being illegal. When the inspector arrived a porter would ring a special bell and the students would pass their textbooks to the child at the end of the row, and that child would hide them. When the inspector would quiz the class, it was to her the teacher would turn, because she knew that she could trust her smartest student to answer correctly. She later attended an illegal “floating university” where she learned all sorts of ideals. She liked the positivism of Auguste Comte, and she believed that that by learning and then educating others she could help free Poland. She taught classes for the underpriviledged while she was a student, and again during her time off when working as a governess. When she went to France to study she believed she would return home to Poland to help work and create a better world there. When Pierre was writing to her, trying to woo her he tried to convince her she could do more to help the world through science than just nationalism but it seems it wasn’t until after he offered to go back to Poland with her that she decided she would marry him – but not accept his offered sacrifice, but stayed instead with him in France.

In France amongst her research and caring for her family she taught at a girl’s school. It was a government run boarding school meant to train women who would then teach at girls schools. Marie didn’t like the poor resources available for the women’s science education, so she voluntarily taught for twice the amount of time per week she was paid for, so that she could teach calculus to the girls instead of just physics.

Yet despite being a strong, successful woman, Marie found certain aspects of motherhood challenging. The book Grand Obsession: Madame Curie and Her World describes Marie’s oldest daughter as a young child:

“If Irène made up her mind that she wanted renettes – a special kind of apple – tired as Marie might be at the end of the day, she would go in search of some. She dared not go home empty-handed, or a terrible tangtrum would result. Irène was a little tyrant, a difficult, demanding child like many who have to share their parents with siblings. Irène’s competition, however, was a laboratory, and the small girl learned at an early age how to get her mother and father’s attention.” (78)

“No one but Mé [Marie] could undress her at night – when she was home. Then Marie must stay with her, like other parents from time immemorial, talking or reading, no matter how tired she might be, until the six-year-old fell asleep. Should Irène awaken, she would call “Mé! Mé!” in an imperious voice, and nothing would do but for Marie to come and sit alongside her again in the darkness until slumber once more claimed her daughter.” (101)

Why do we do this? Why do we let our children have their way?

The video More Than Meets the Eye hints at the artistic nature of Paris through a side character, a young artist living in the same building as the children, and Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie mentions dancer Loie Fuller who came to the Curies wanting their help in creating a luminous radium costume.  (Check out a video of Loie Fuller’s Serpentine dance, performed by different dancers from 1895 to 1908 but keep in mind much of the color would have been added to the film after.) Twilight in the Belle Epoque tells of Ms. Fuller introducing Marie and Pierre to Auguste Rodin, sculpture of The Thinker.

The various books about radiation mention the different types of radiation, including alpha particles. We are lucky enough we have access to a wonderful science center that includes a cloud chamber were we could see the condensation trails formed when alpha particles ionize particles allowing a cloud of alcohol to form behind it. You can learn about it from this video:

The video mentions how the lead 210 they were using (the same as we saw at the science center) turns into bismuth 210, which turns into Polonium 210 – and I could point out to the kids where in the books about Madame Curie it mentions the same decay.

Several of the books mention watches painted with radium, so I looked around and found a little video about the watches on youtube.

All of this talk of radiation has been just enough to get my boys interested in the book The Radioactive Boys Scout, by Ken Silverstein. We also looked at online pictures of the 1950s radioactivity kits.

You can learn more about Marie Curie at the AIP Center for the History of Physics website or lots of other places online. There is an XKCD comic about Marie Curie you might want to check out. Also good for discussing radioactivity is a youtube video on how smoke detectors work, since they include a radioactive element.


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  • Jennifer

    I’m glad I stumbled on your blog. I’m an MFA candidate and am writing a research paper regarding Loie Fuller and Marie Curie, and women of science in the early 1900’s.

    Coincidentally, great job on the homeschooling, I did it with my twins during a 3 month transition period and it is HARD!

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