Marie Curie and the Wisdom Radiated by Art

The scientific landscape of the late 19th century was imbued with a particular air of magic. For a scientist exploring new frontiers of knowledge, the near infinity of possibilities was nothing short of enchanting. Such was the case for Marie Curie and the resounding waves she would make while pioneering the physics of radioactivity. To encapsulate the story of her discoveries and the life that gave rise to them, while staying true to the fantastical nature of science at the time, would be a Herculean feat. Yet, somehow, Lauren Redniss accomplishes exactly this feat in her book, Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout. Interweaving each passage with abstract drawings and vivid colors, Redniss breathes life into a science and history that I never knew could feel so alive.

A background of polyhedra placed behind a passage detailing the mechanism and applications of piezoelectricity (Redniss, pg. 31)

At one point, I found myself especially immersed upon reading a passage detailing piezoelectricity. Placed against a dark backdrop dotted with bright, colorful polyhedra, the passage featured such riveting quotes as “When crystals were pressed along their axis of symmetry, they produced an electric charge,” and “Mechanisms that depend on piezoelectricity are found today propelling droplets in inkjet printers.” The passage, devoid of any imagery or figurative language, reads like a textbook example of a textbook example. Yet, I was enthralled. This was not just a classic case of art being used to depict scientific ideas, but rather the art itself was communicating something new entirely. It was evoking the sentiment of wonder and fascination that brought these ideas from the realm of the factual, of the intellect, into the realm of the imagination.

In those instances where Redniss does choose to capitalize on vivid, linguistic imagery, her artwork does not pull any punches either. When Marie and Pierre Curie, upon successfully proving the existence of radium, “marvel” at some samples of radium chloride in their lab, Redniss allows us, as readers, to marvel along with them at the peaceful, soft glow of their success. She quotes Marie Curie:

“These gleamings, which seemed suspended in darkness, stirred us with new emotion and enchantment… The glowing tubes looked like fairy lights.” (Redniss, pg. 60)

Samples of radium chloride glowing “like fairy lights” as depicted by Lauren Redniss (Redniss, pg. 60)

I will concede that telling the story of the Curies in such a manner, a patchwork of art, history, and science, leaves the tale sparse and almost fragmented. A historian looking to understand the complex history of Marie Curie’s personal life, or a scientist looking to better grasp concepts of radioactivity, will find little to aid them in the pursuits of their specific fields. I, at least, certainly have not even retained half of the information I have read thus far. However, that is not what Redniss is trying to achieve. She does not present, here, an alternative to biographical literature because her art is not meant to be a substitute for the written word. It is meant to be its own form of communication, delivering wisdom that only art itself can convey.

It is perhaps best described in the 2011 Exploratorium Conference “Art as a Way of Knowing.” In describing art as a form of inquiry, they describe learning as “a journey…[involving] a diverse combination of symbolic, visual, auditory, and embodied experiences.” Learning is not the singular accumulation of knowledge but is instead a journey of the senses. Like the classic thought experiment of Mary’s Room, there is something to be gained from an experience that cannot be gained by pure facts. What Redniss achieves is the evocation of feelings of wonder, adventure, and fascination, that allow us a glimpse at what it is like to stand at the cusp of scientific discovery.

Only half-way through the book right now, I have come to appreciate the format with which Lauren Redniss has chosen to tell the story of Marie and Pierre Curie. I now excitedly await the opportunity to learn even more, using art as its own, enchanting way of learning.


  1. Redniss, L. (2010). Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: a tale of love and fallout. It Books.
  2. McDougall, M., Bevan, B., & Semper, R. (2012). Art as a way of knowing. Exploratorium, San Fransciso.
  3. Nida-Rümelin, M., & O Conaill, D. (2002). Qualia: The knowledge argument.



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