Wednesday 23 February 2011

"I would like it to have a beautiful colour"

It's not often I write about books before I read them, but I'm making an exception for Lauren Redniss's Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, which just arrived in the post in all its matte-stock glory.

I impulse-bought the book on the recommendation of this New York Times review. It is as beautiful as they suggested. So beautiful, in fact, that the New York Public Library currently has an exhibition of drawings from the book. Redniss worked on the book when she was a Fellow at the Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers in 2008-2009; the exhibition brings together her original works with the collection items that inspired and influenced her. I wish our National Library had a programme for artists, illustrators, graphic novelists and data visualisers like this.

As with Ernest Rutherford, I dove into Marie Curie's life last year, as I read about early work on radiation. Alongside Rutherford's experiment hurling alpha particles at a sheet of gold foil, the image of Curie reducing a mountain of pitchblende to a few brilliant specks of radium must be one of the most enduring of 20th century science.

The title of this post comes from Lydia Davis's short story 'Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman', in her Collected Stories. It is Pierre Curie expressing his hopes for radium. Having only flicked through the book, it feels like Redniss has captured, alongside Pierre and Marie Curie's work, the faith they had in the essential beauty of their science.

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