Monday, May 2, 2011

Runs in the Family: The Curies

After reading Borrowed Names, I wanted to know more about Irene and Marie Curie.  So I checked the bibliography and ordered up one of the reference books.  The Curies: A Biography of the Most Controversial Family in Science starts with Marie and Pierre Curie and continues with daughter Irene, her husband Frederic Joliot, and daughter Eve.  I think the standard of controversial science families must be rather low, since the main controversy seemed to be that Marie and Irene were both women (!! yes -- it is true!!).  Well, Marie Curie was accused of having an affair with a married man once, and Frederic Joliot became a communist, but then so did most of France (both have affairs and become communist).

Denis Brian does a good job establishing a narrative.  He often has several strands going; he traces the families and childhood of both Marie and Pierre and then later follows both Eve Curie's travels as a journalist and Frederic Joliot's work in France during and after World War II.  Joliot gets more attention than Irene from their marriage onward, which was a bit of a disappointment for me since Irene was my main interest going into the book.  Borrowed Names was about the relationship between Irene and her mother, and this book gave me more of the facts behind the events mentioned in the poems.  I wish there had been a bit more explanation of the actual science, especially for Irene and Frederic, because sometimes that got lost in the descriptions of the arguments between scientists.  But I got a sense of the transition from the work the early Curies did in a shed to the more elaborate work of Irene, and finally the gigantic systems Frederic's late work required.  And the transition from the pure science of the early discovery of radioactivity through wild enthusiasm of its potential for good to the horror of the atomic bomb.

I'm interested in continuing to learn more about the Curies, perhaps with a stronger look at the science behind their work.  B

No comments: