4:55pm

Fri January 7, 2011
Author Interviews

The 'Twilight Softness' Of 'Radioactive'

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:34 am

Lauren Redniss is a writer and illustrator whose work has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In her new, stunning visual biography, Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout, she describes the marriage and discoveries of the famous scientific couple. She spoke to Melissa Block about the book, the Curies' fairy tale love story and the sensation caused by their introduction of radium to the world.

Before starting the book, Redniss spoke to the Curies' grandaughter in Paris, who had several warnings for the author.

"She warned me about two things," Redniss says. "She said the first danger of writing about the Curies is to turn their story into a fairy tale. And the second danger is to forget Pierre. So while I very deliberately did fall into the first trap and emphasized very deliberately the fairy tale aspects of their story, I tried to highlight Pierre's work."

Indeed, Redniss does use fairy tale language to describe the Curies' life: Marie Curie is a young scientist from Poland; she comes to Paris; she meets Pierre Curie, and they become inseparable.

She says, "It was really important to me to not separate the human element from the scientific developments."

It was also clear to Redniss that the Curies' story was a highly visual one, albeit one that proved challenging for the illustrator.

"It is largely about invisible forces," she says. "Love and radioactivity, these things that we can't see. To make a visual book about that was an intriguing challenge."

The book's look and feel -- it is luminous and vibrating with color -- comes from a process Redniss used called "cyanotype printing." In the process, one takes paper, coats it with a light-sensitive chemical solution, and then exposes it to sunlight to reveal a negative image. The sunlight often turns the paper blue.

"That blue has sort of a twilight quality," says Redniss. "And because you are getting a negative of the drawings, you often get a white line. That to me had this sort of glow that reflected what Marie Curie called radium's spontaneous luminosity."

Among the facts about the couple Redniss includes in the book are that Marie Curie kept a tube of radium next to her pillow, and that Pierre Curie strapped radium onto his arm and saw a lesion develop. She notes that the couple were more fascinated with than horrified by the results.

"I think they saw these effects with a scientific detachment," Redniss says. "When Pierre put that vial of radium against his arm ... they understood that if radium could destroy healthy tissue, it may also be able to destroy disease tissue, and they began to develop cancer treatments."

After the Curies discovered radium, the element became an instant commercial hit. People began calling it a wonder drug and developing products out of it, a concept that Redniss explores in her book to humorous effect.

"There was toothpaste; there were pillows; there were chocolates and all kinds of medicines and household products and anything you could imagine to give your body a healthy glow," she says, laughing. "In some cases, there was radium in the product and in other cases it was more along the lines of an American Express gold card -- there isn't really gold in the card, but radium was used as a branding and selling point."

And why all of the pandemonium surrounding radium to begin with?

"It was a sort of panacea," she says. "It was promised to impart longevity, virility, and general all-over health."

It was even thought that radium paint could be used on walls, and the whole room would be lighted from within, with a greenish-turquoise gold glow.

"There was a chemist who formulated radium paint that he called 'undark paint,' " Redniss says. "He said if you were to paint your house with this paint it would be as if there was moonlight. I think it would be heavenly [to have]. That is part of the quality that I try to capture ... this kind of twilight softness. If radium wasn't toxic, you can't beat it."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Now, we've turned off the lights here in the studio. I'm holding a book in my hand, and it's glowing in the dark, a ghostly light green.

The book is titled "Radioactive." It's a stunning visual biography of Pierre and Marie Curie, describing, through image and text, their discoveries of radium and polonium and, describing their passionate marriage. The author and artist Lauren Redniss calls it a tale of love and fallout.

And Lauren Redniss, you met the Curies' granddaughter in Paris when you were working on this book. She gave you a kind of warning. What did she tell you?

Ms. LAUREN REDNISS (Author, "Radioactive"): She warned me about two things. She said that the first danger in writing about the Curies is to turn their story into a fairy tale. And the second danger is to forget Pierre.

So while I very deliberately did fall into the first trap and emphasized in some ways the fairy tale aspects of their story, I tried to highlight Pierre's work.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about that first trap that you deliberately or willfully blundered into, you said, in this book. Marie Curie is a young scientist from Poland, she comes to Paris, she meets Pierre Curie, and they become inseparable. And that to you - you heighten the romantic parts of this. They bicycle on their honeymoon.

Ms. REDNISS: Yes. It was really important to me to not separate the human element from the scientific developments.

BLOCK: Did it strike you right away that the Curies' story was a visual one. Was it something you, as an artist, wanted to tell not just in words but in pictures?

Ms. REDNISS: It presented a really interesting challenge because it's largely about invisible forces. It's about love. It's about radioactivity, these things that we can't see, and so to make a visual book about that was an intriguing challenge for me.

BLOCK: Let's talk about that challenge and how you solved it because the images in this book are sort of luminous. They're vibrating with color. What did you do?

Ms. REDNISS: Most of the images in the book are made with a process called cyanotype printing. And it is a process based on the idea of exposure. So that made thematic sense to me.

What you do is you take paper, and you coat it with a light-sensitive chemical solution. You place on that, in my case, a negative of my drawings, and then you expose it to sunlight. The UV rays of the sunlight interact with the chemical and turn the paper blue.

And a lot of the images in the book are blue. They're not glowing, but they sort of look like they're lifting off the page a little bit.

Ms. REDNISS: Right. That blue has sort of a twilight quality. And because you are getting a negative of the drawings, they often have a white line. And that to me had this certain kind of glow that reflected what Marie Curie called radium's spontaneous luminosity.

BLOCK: Hmm. You have a section here where you talk about Marie Curie keeping a vial, a tube of radium, right next to her pillow; Pierre Curie strapping some onto his arm and watching a lesion develop on his arm, but he's not horrified by it. He's fascinated. He's delighted for some reason. Why?

Ms. REDNISS: I think they saw these effects with a scientific detachment. And they - as you describe, when Pierre put that vial of radium against his arm and saw the lesion develop, they understood that if radium could destroy healthy tissue, it may also be able to destroy diseased tissue, and they began to develop cancer treatments.

BLOCK: You describe what happens after the Curies discover radium. It becomes an instant commercial hit. People think it's a wonder drug, and you have a long list of products that were marketed around radium. What were some of them?

Ms. REDNISS: There was toothpaste; there were pillows; there was chocolates - all kinds of medicines and household products and just about anything you could imagine to give your body and mind a healthy glow.

BLOCK: Were these things that were actually put on the market with radium, or were these just ideas?

Ms. REDNISS: Some were, and some weren't. In some cases, there was radium in the products, and in other cases it was more along the lines of something like an American Express gold card where, you know, there isn't really gold in that card, but radium was used as a branding and selling point.

BLOCK: What was the thinking, that because it was glowing that it would be some sort of life force?

Ms. REDNISS: Yeah, It was a sort of panacea. It was promised to impart longevity, it was promised to impart virility, general all-over health.

BLOCK: And the idea, there was one other idea, which is fascinating, too, that you could paint your walls with radium paint, and the whole room would be sort of lighted from within. You imagine what that would look like with one of your illustrations, which is sort of - has this greenish-turquoise glow. The whole room is glowing with this paint.

Ms. REDNISS: Yes, there was a chemist who formulated radium paint that he called undark paint, and he said if you were to paint your house with this paint it would be as if there was moonlight.

BLOCK: Do you ever think about what that would be like to have a room that looked like that?

Ms. REDNISS: Oh, I think it would be heavenly.

BLOCK: You do?

Ms. REDNISS: I think that that is part of the quality that I try to capture in that image that you describe and in the cyanotypes, this kind of twilight softness.

BLOCK: If it weren't for the radium, it would all be great, right?

Ms. REDNISS: Right, exactly. If it wasn't toxic, you can't beat it.

BLOCK: Well, Lauren Redniss, thank you so much.

Ms. REDNISS: Thank you.

BLOCK: Lauren Redniss is the author and artist behind the visual biography "Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Fallout. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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