April 4, 2005
Volume 83, Number 14
pp. 69-71



OBSESSIVE GENIUS: The Inner World of Marie Curie, by Barbara Goldsmith, W.W. Norton & Co., 2005, 320 pages, $23.95 (ISBN: 0-393-05137-4)

RADIATION AND MODERN LIFE: Fulfilling Marie Curie's Dream, by Alan E. Waltar, Prometheus Books, 2004, 336 pages, $28 (ISBN: 1-59102-250-9)



My elementary school lunches had jokes printed on the aluminum foil covering the tray of what passed for food. The only one of these that I remember after more than 30 years is, "Marie Curie had a radiant personality." George Carlin will probably never use this joke, but it was apparently memorable enough to stick in my mind.

SPARKLE Colored images of the radioactive emission of a-particles from radium.
I think part of the reason I remember is that I had just finished reading a kids-level biography of Marie Curie--even at that time I was fascinated by science--and I had been entranced by the sheer effort and dedication she put into identifying polonium and radium, and extracting a minuscule amount of radium from so many tons of pitchblende. In fact, even though I have a master's degree in geology, I still retain a fascination with pitchblende that outweighs its geological importance.

For decades, Curie's story was effectively set in stone by the example of her daughter Eve Curie's biography, "Madame Curie: A Biography." This and subsequent biographies talked about the Marie Curie legend--her life in poverty, impossibly hard work in an unheated shed, her marriage to Pierre and his tragically premature death, and her position as the first woman to win so much scientific recognition. Einstein may have perfected the role of scientist-as-public-figure, but Curie was among the first scientists to enjoy a global reputation and almost universal acclamation during her life.

In recent years, many of Curie's personal papers have become available to the public, leading to a minor renaissance in Curie-related biographies. The first to take advantage of this new access was Susan Quinn's estimable 1995 book, "Marie Curie: A Life." Since Marie Curie's scientific story has been pretty well told, Quinn chose to make her a full-fledged person, revealing the passions and fears that played an important part of her life. The most recent addition to the literature is Barbara Goldsmith's biography, "Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie," which also digs into Curie's personal papers to continue the process of revealing more about the person who was Marie Curie.

There is always a risk in discussing the private life of any person, historical or contemporary. There is a special risk in doing so for a figure such as Curie: Her legend is so ingrained that any biography that reveals weakness or any human foible may itself be attacked as needlessly sensational, lurid, or destructive. That Goldsmith managed to avoid such negative criticism is a credit to the tact and sensitivity with which she addressed the matters of Curie's human weaknesses.

As a boy growing up, I remember quite well the first time I realized my father could make mistakes. I remember equally well the first time I asked a teacher a question he could not answer. These were momentous to nobody other than me, but they were the first times I realized that none of us is infallible. Goldsmith's work reveals that even a figure as idolized as Marie Curie had her faults and, more important, that they did not prevent her ultimate success.

To me, this makes her accomplishments more, not less, impressive. When our heroes have superhuman powers, we expect nothing less than near-perfection. Revealing Curie's human side may remind us that she was just a person after all, but to me it makes it all the more remarkable that she accomplished so much amid losing her husband, caring for her children, serving France during World War I, being embroiled in a public love affair, fighting to join the French Academy, and struggling with depression and self-doubt.

At first, I found myself wishing for more of the science and less of the personal in Goldsmith's book, and wondering why Curie's personal details, not all of them flattering, matter. I'm not sure that I can give a universal answer to this question; each reader will have to make his or her own determination. But I can say why they were worth reading.

Most important, Marie Curie was a person who happened to be a wonderful scientist. As a scientist myself, I've often wondered about the trade-offs that we face: How much time do I take from my family for my work? What can I accomplish with a few more hours at the lab? And how much will I regret missing that much more of my children's lives? It doesn't surprise me that many of my colleagues feel the same way, but it was a revelation to find that even Marie Curie worried about being an inattentive mother. It is nice to be reminded that we are all humans first and scientists second.

The book does have a few problems, most stemming from the author's relative lack of scientific training. These are largely unimportant to its overall flow, and they do not detract from the credibility of the other materials presented. There is, however, a glaring counterexample that bears mention.

As a radiation safety professional, I am sensitive, perhaps overly so, to media reports of the deadliness of radiation. Hence, one of my pet peeves is hearing matter-of-fact references to radiation's dangers. Of course, radiation can cause health problems, but most people, even most scientists, overrate its dangers. In the case of "Obsessive Genius," the author assumes (admittedly not without justification) that Marie Curie died of some radiation-induced malady and that Pierre Curie was so weakened by radiation sickness that he fell beneath a horse-drawn carriage. While these assumptions may be understandable, I have heard considerable debate among my colleagues as to their validity, and the bottom line is that nobody knows. Short of exhuming the Curies' bodies to measure radium in their skeletons, we may never know if radiation exposure played a role in their demise. I can understand the literary fascination of two scientific geniuses struck down by the very phenomena they elucidated so convincingly. But I wish the author had spoken with some radiation biologists before making these statements with such assurance.

My other quibbles with this book are just that--quibbles. For example, the author describes the amount of "energy" that can be released by a modest amount of radium, but fails to mention if this is the energy released from radioactive decay or from the complete conversion of radium to energy (described by Einstein's famous equation). My calculations show that it is probably the latter. But if that is the case, then this statement is merely a comment on Einstein's equation that applies to any matter, not uniquely to radium. Even with these concerns, however, "Obsessive Genius" is enjoyable and recommended for those interested in Marie Curie as well as in her science.

During her life, Curie devoted considerable effort toward finding ways in which her discoveries could be used to benefit humanity. How well we have met her aspirations is the subject of Alan E. Waltar's "Radiation and Modern Life."

I spend a great deal of time communicating with the public and the media about radiological and nuclear issues. In so doing, I find myself seeking analogies, examples, and relatively simple language that will help me to accurately describe fairly complex phenomena in terms that are easy to understand, hopefully without insulting the intelligence and understanding of my audience. There were innumerable instances in this book in which I found myself marking a page or making a mental note because Waltar does a wonderful job with his explanations.

My target audience is usually my younger sister and father--both are intelligent and educated people who just don't know much science. Both of them could read this book, understand it, and come away with a better appreciation of my profession than they now have. On the other hand, this same simple language at times made the book difficult for me to read because I kept hoping for somewhat more sophisticated examples and explanations that never really materialized.

For example, the author notes that "it may be that radiation technology is the only viable environmental way to generate the increasing amounts of energy needed by a growing population over the next century, without releasing unprecedented amounts of global warming gases and heavy metals into the environment." This is a statement with which I happen to agree, but whenever I engage in discussion on this matter, I am invariably asked about hydroelectric, wind, and solar energy, as well as where the heavy metals come from. Another page of text would have sufficed to address all of these matters, albeit briefly, and would have added immensely to the value of this discussion.

For a practicing scientist or professional with little background in radiological or nuclear issues, this book will be helpful; it would be a great gift for the nonscientist who is trying to learn more. But for those who already possess a fairly good understanding of the manner in which we use radiation in our society, this book may not add appreciably to a deeper understanding, though it will help when it comes time to communicate that understanding with others.

A few years ago, I experienced an irregular heartbeat that, in conjunction with a family history of heart disease, had my cardiologist and me concerned. These concerns were alleviated in large part by a nuclear cardiology examination--one of millions of nuclear medicine procedures administered annually in the U.S. Add to this the X-rays I had for a recent broken toe, CT scans for various family members, and the radiation oncology I hope to never have a need for, and it's obvious that the benefits of radiation in the medical field alone are significant. Waltar goes far beyond medicine, however, detailing the impact of radiation in agriculture, power generation, industry, space exploration, and more. He also tackles some of the darker side of radiation with sections on terrorism and radiological contamination of the environment, but these take a decided backseat to the rest of the book.

This, in part, constitutes my only real objection to this book. While Waltar is correct that radiation is the agent of much more good than bad, his book tries too hard to be cheery, at the risk of losing credibility. I was struck again and again by the glowing detail lavished on the benefits that society garners from the use of radiation, and with the comparatively brief brush-off given to its commonly perceived risks. Radiation is actually not significantly dangerous, even at moderately elevated levels of exposure. However, I would like to have seen a more thorough debunking of the myths of radiation risks, rather than a series of rather facile statements dismissing them.

For example, the author discusses possible beneficial effects of radiation exposure for which there is some, although controversial, evidence. Unfortunately, the author simply cites a few references and notes that people in areas of high background radiation levels show unusually long life spans and no increase in cancer mortality, without going into further detail to make these assertions convincing or even plausible to skeptical readers. I also would like to have seen a more balanced reading list and some references for many of the reassuring statements made in the book.

I don't think that Waltar's book will change many minds in and of itself; it is too one-sided to convince those already opposed to or afraid of radiation. But for those who are fascinated by science and technology, it offers a wealth of information about why our fears of radiation are overblown and gives the lie to claims that radiation and nuclear technologies are more trouble than they're worth.

Andrew Karam is a research assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, where his primary research interests are radiological and nuclear terrorism. He has worked in radiation safety or related fields for nearly 25 years, including spending time on a nuclear submarine and consulting for New York City and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
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