Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive
Selected by graduate students in the Creative Writing program at the University of Wyoming
Beginning with the story of Marie and Pierre Curie and then expanding outward, and then outward, and then outward,Radioactive is an expansive and visual essay that attempts to reveal to us through its overplus of information, curiosity, and beauty the inevitable invisibility of things.
It is part biography, part love story, part scientific history and cultural observation—a myriad of modes that are united seamlessly and ingeniously by Redniss’ collaging of archival photographs, a wonderstruck writing style, and her own dreamlike images.
Beginning as a biography about the Curies—the first people to ever win two Noble Prizes—it lays bare their childhoods, their fiercely intense love story, their scientific collaborations, and the way their toxic discoveries, which included radium and polonium, slowly poisoned them and ultimately caused their deaths. Expanding out from there, the book ranges through the inevitable consequences of their discovery of radium: the commercial, cultural, physical and spiritual.
In Radioactive we learn about radium-laced toothpaste, condoms, suppositories, cigarettes, pillows, bath salts, and even chocolate,. The book tours the Nevada Test Site and the thousand nuclear bombs that were tested there in just one year. It visits the Merry Widow Health Mine in Montana, where desperately ill Americans went to breathe radioactive air in the hope that it might cure them. And it even offers a meditation on Hiroshima that manages to indirectly shed light on more recent cultural phenomena like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.
Indeed, both the charm and the horror of Radioactive is that, like its primary subject, its essayistic explorations radiate into wholly unexpected and thrilling places. Even the form of the book replicates its radiating content through a process called “cyanotype printing, in which a drawing is, through a chemical process that involves sunlight, turned into a kind of glowing negative of the original. As Redniss explains,
Cyanotype is a camera-less photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. When the chemically treated paper is exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, it turns a deep blue color. Photographic imaging was critical to both the discovery of X-rays and of radioactivity, so it made sense to me to use a process based on the idea of exposure to create the images in Radioactive.
She employed cyanotype printing, Redniss says, because she wanted to capture “what Marie Curie called radium’s ‘spontaneous luminosity.’”
It’s an effect that permeates the book—even its cover glows in the dark—and creates a uniquely infectious reading experience that reminds us just how expansive the form of the essay can be. As the National Book Award judges put it:
Redniss’ achievement is a celebration of the essential power of books to inform, charm, and transport. In marrying the graphic and visual arts with biography and cultural history, she has expanded the realm of non-fiction.