Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radiation

The history of science is filled with incredible stories of creative and brilliant men and women who risk their livelihoods, reputations, and occasionally, their lives to increase their-and our-understanding of the world around us. Could there be a more fascinating and tragic story than the one of Marie Curie? Her incredible life is the subject of Carla Killough McClafferty's biography of Mme. Curie, Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radiation.

I knew little about Marie Curie before I read this book. McClafferty's telling of the proud and poor Polish native who became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize is as engrossing and engaging as any novel I have recently read. I began reading this the night before I left for a trip, and I broke my rule of not bringing library books on a trip. I couldn't very well leave it for four entire days!

The central piece of the biography, of course, focuses on Curie's discovery of radium, and how her discovery led to immediate and significant uses (and abuses) for all sorts of conditions. It is absolutely frightening to read how radium was promoted and readily available for every medical ailment (she did not believe in "owning rights" to her discovery, so she could not control the outcome). It is sobering to read that the Bibliotheque Nationale, France's national library, requires researchers who wish to see the Curies' lab notebooks to sign a liability form because of the still present risk of radioactivity. It is heartbreaking to read of the Curies' (Marie and her husband, Pierre) deaths from the (probable) cause of her celebrated discovery.

A good biography does not merely recount dates and places, and it inspires the reader to want to read more about its subject. McClafferty has certainly succeeded on both counts.

We also have an earlier biography of Marie Curie in the Giants of Science series, as well as a video originally shown on HBO.

The AIP Center for History of Physics has an extensive site on Marie Curie. It also has a site for children.

Read Curie's Nobel lecture and banquet speech for her 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Marie Curie's obituary in the New York Times.

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