Radioactive: An Exhibition at The New York Public Library

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout tells the story of an artist and writer who drew on the vast collections of The New York Public Library to create a new work of art. In 2008–09 Lauren Redniss was a Fellow at the Library’s Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, where she worked on a book of visual art and narrative nonfiction called Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout (HarperCollins, December 2010).

The exhibition explores the discovery of radioactivity at the turn of the 20th century through the dramatic partnership of Nobel laureates Marie and Pierre Curie. Their story reflects the beauty, and the dangers, inherent in scientific progress and love. In the century since the Curies discovered new radioactive elements, the world has struggled with nuclear weapons proliferation, debated the role of radiation in medical treatment, and considered whether nuclear power can serve as an alternative energy source to counter climate change. Radioactive links these atomic age dilemmas to a romance in Paris in the 1890s.

To create her images, Redniss studied Anna Atkins’s Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843), which are housed in the Library’s Spencer Collection. Drawing on additional Library resources, she examined Russian lithographs, Renaissance anatomical etchings, 18th-century fashion advertisements, and photographs from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. After studying the title pages of hundreds of books in the Library’s a Digital Gallery, she designed her own typeface.

This exhibition traces a Library researcher’s creative process—offering just one example of the many ways in which The New York Public Library’s treasures inspire fresh ideas, scholarship, and art. —Jean Strouse, Director, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers

A Romantic & Scientific Partnership

In 1891, 24-year-old Marya Skłodowska moved from Warsaw to Paris. She changed her name to Marie, studied chemistry, math, and physics, and found work in the laboratory of the scientist Pierre Curie. The two physicists fell in love. They married in 1895. Together, they expanded the periodic table, discovering the elements radium and polonium. They also recognized radioactivity as an atomic property, inaugurating a new era in science and in world history. In 1903, they received a Nobel Prize for their work, which distinguished Marie as the first woman laureate. The press, captivated by the couple’s romance, cast it as a modern fairy tale, introducing stories about the Curies with “Once upon a time…”

The Death of Pierre Curie

On a rainy Thursday in April of 1906, Pierre Curie left his wife and daughters on vacation in the French countryside and returned to Paris for a meeting. After the meeting, he set out for his lab on foot, limping from chronic pain caused by prolonged radiation exposure. As he crossed the rue Dauphine near the Pont Neuf, he was struck by a horse-drawn carriage.

His daughter Eve later described the moment: “His body passed between the feet of the horses without even being touched, and then between the two front wheels of the wagon. A miracle was possible. But the enormous mass, dragged on by its weight of six tons, continued for several yards more. The left back wheel encountered a feeble obstacle which it crushed in passing: a forehead, a human head. The cranium was shattered and a red, viscous matter trickled in all directions in the mud—the brain of Pierre Curie.”

Paul Langevin

After Pierre’s death, Marie continued their work alone. In 1911, she received an unprecedented second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry. She also fell in love again, with the married physicist Paul Langevin. Rumors of their affair quickly made international headlines. The journalist Gustav Téry published Marie and Paul’s love letters. (Someone—apparently hired by Langevin’s wife—had stolen them from Paul’s apartment.) Paul challenged the journalist to a duel, but neither man fired his pistol.

Seeking distance from the scandal, the Nobel Committee tried to prevent Marie from attending the prize ceremony. Marie responded, “The steps that you advise seem to me a grave error… There is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life.”

Albert Einstein, then 32, wrote to her: “I will always be grateful that we have people like you and Langevin among us…. If the rabble continues to be occupied with you, simply stop reading that drivel. Leave it to the vipers it was fabricated for.”

Marie defied her critics and traveled to Stockholm in December 1911 to accept the prize. After the ceremony, she dined at the royal palace with the king of Sweden, Gustaf V.

Irene & Eve Curie

The Curies had two daughters, Irène, born in 1897, and Eve, in 1904. Irène became a physicist and worked in the Curie laboratory. She married Frédéric Joliot, who had worked as her mother’s assistant, and they combined their surnames. In 1935, five months after Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia due to radiation poisoning, the Joliot-Curies won a Nobel Prize for their work on artificial radioactivity. Irène and Frédéric’s two children both became scientists: Pierre is a biologist, and Hélène (who married Michel Langevin—the grandson of Marie’s lover, Paul Langevin) is a nuclear physicist.

The Curies’ second daughter, Eve, was a journalist who wrote a best-selling biography of her mother. During World War II, she worked for the Free French Forces in England. She married Henry Labouisse, the American ambassador to Greece, who was executive director of Unicef when it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965. Reflecting on her family’s achievements, Eve quipped, “There were five Nobel Prizes in my family: two for my mother, one each for my father, [my] sister and brother-in-law, and my husband. Only I was not successful.”

Creating a Cyanotype

Redniss created many of the images in Radioactive using a camera-less photographic process known as cyanotype printing. She was inspired in part by Anna Atkins’s Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, published in 1843.

To make each of her cyanotypes, Redniss painted a sheet of paper with a light-sensitive chemical solution. Next, she placed transparencies of her drawings on the coated paper. She then pressed the sheet of treated paper and the transparencies together under glass, and exposed them to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. UV rays interact with the chemical coating, turning the paper a deeply saturated blue and leaving the lines of the drawing —the areas protected from the sun—white.

Redniss chose this medium for several reasons. In a cyanotype, the negative of an image creates the impression of an internal light. For Redniss, this made thematic sense: an attempt to capture on paper what Marie Curie called radium’s “spontaneous luminosity.” In addition, Redniss thought it fitting to use a process based on exposure, since photographic imaging was central to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity.

Designing a Typeface

For this original combination of artwork and written narrative, Redniss considered the look of her text with great care. She wanted it to reflect the tone of the narrative — to be formal yet tender. After studying typefaces on the title pages of books in The New York Public Library’s collections, Redniss designed her own font.

Typographers use a process called “kerning” to adjust the spacing between characters for visual balance (for example, an “i” takes up less horizontal space than an “m”). Redniss decided not to refine the kerning in her font too precisely so that the type retained a somewhat imperfect and handmade look.

She named the new font Eusapia LR after Eusapia Palladino, the Italian spiritualist medium who fascinated the Curies and other prominent intellectuals. After attending one of Palladino’s séances in early 1906, Pierre Curie wrote: “There is here, in my opinion, a whole domain of entirely new facts and physical states in space of which we have no conception.”