Each lost an early love — he in France, she in Poland — a fate that emboldened Marie to flee to Paris to study mathematics and physics at the Sorbonne, one of 23 women out of a student body of 1,800. Soon after graduating, she met her future husband, a fellow physicist, at a tea in 1894. “I noticed the grave and gentle expression of his face,” she recalled, “as well as a certain abandon in his attitude, suggesting the dreamer absorbed in his reflections.” Picasso-like, black-on-white drawings depict this fateful moment: Pierre, cool and lithe on the left page, serenely gazes at a demure Marie, who on the right page looks down with large, pensive eyes. With a turn of the page, the two are now together, the room a burst of vibrant color, as if in celebration of the historic connection that had been made. Soon after this episode, they began their close collaboration, forging a life “consecrated entirely to scientific research,” as Marie put it.
Marie’s doctoral thesis explored the invisible radiation that appeared to emanate from uranium salts. This new science needed a name. Set at the bottom of a single photo of an atomic bomb blast spread over two pages, we read Marie’s answer: “I coined the word radioactivity.”
In this endeavor, Marie unveiled new elements — polonium and radium — by exhaustively purifying tons of pitchblende in a dilapidated wooden shed in Paris. “The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights,” Marie muses on a page of blue, the stylized containers harboring a soft white glow within.
Pierre experimented on himself as early as 1900 to see the effects of radium on his body. He strapped a tube of radium against his arm for 10 hours, and was later gleeful to see a lesion appear. As this story unfolds, there are side trips to the culture of the era — Pierre’s dalliance with spiritualism, a dancer who wished to dress herself in the glow of radium — as well as some foreshadowing of the mysterious goings-on in the Manhattan project during World War II.
The same year, 1903, that Marie defended her doctoral thesis on radioactive substances, she and Pierre received theNobel Prize in physics. Though only 36 and 44, respectively, they were already in failing health. “Radioactivity had made the Curies immortal,” writes Redniss. “Now it was killing them” — just as it later afflicted their daughter, Irène, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot, whose scientific research followed in the Curies’ footsteps.