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.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.