science writer

+ A Life Full of Passion that Led to Two Nobel Prizes

+ A Life Full of Passion that Led to Two Nobel Prizes

by Casey Rentz

[review published on New, Nov 2011]

If you ever assumed that scientists lead dull lives, your mind will be irrevocably changed after watching acclaimed actor and screenwriter Alan Alda’s new play, Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie. In it, the Nobel-Prize-winning scientist endures dramatic circumstances - gender prejudice, romance, scandal and disease - as she works to discover and isolate radium for the first time.

Radiance opens with Marie and Pierre Curie in a dusty, makeshift laboratory with a leaky roof. Here, they spent countless days and nights isolating pure radium, a radioactive element they discovered in rocks leftover from an Austrian mining project.

Radioactive uranium was discovered just a few years earlier, and as other scientists were busy ignoring the electromagnetic rays gushing forth from it, the Curies were enchanted by the phenomenon. Radium, as Pierre’s character demonstrates in the play, can burn through a person’s arm if left sitting there for days, but has potential health benefits like killing cancer cells. Marie’s crucial insight - electromagnetic rays come from within atoms, not from interactions between them - directed the pair to focus on making pure samples of the element for medical purposes.

The Curies stayed up at night dissolving the Austrian-mined rocks called pitchblende with various chemicals in 10-gallon pots. Over two years, they carted in eight tons of pitchblende from the mine and distilled it down to one tenth of a gram of radium. The play shows Marie using her delicate hand on the piezoelectric balance to measure mass of the purified radium, lugging heavy pots, and kissing Pierre as they crossed paths in the lab.

This all happens very quickly at the beginning of the play, and much of the science is explained in Marie’s hastened exclamations, such as: “When uranium gives off radiation, it turns into a whole new element. You don’t find that a bit interesting?” The scientifically literate might catch a few inside references (“Kelvin didn’t think Röntgen had X-rays either. Kelvin is a little slow to catch on…”), scientific jargon that merely add colour for some, but which are a treat for those in the know.

Marie and Pierre Curie shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with Henri Becquerel, the discoverer of uranium. Though Marie was an official recipient of the award, the Nobel Committee wouldn’t allow her on stage to accept it with her co-winners. No one thought it proper for a woman.

In the play, Marie Curie’s character watches her husband walk onto the Nobel Awards stage, and she turns to the audience and says, “I don’t understand—does being a woman require invisibility?” Clearly, she was ahead of her time.

When Marie ultimately earns her autonomy as a woman upon winning her second Nobel Prize in 1911, for not just discovering but isolating radium, she launches into a captivating monologue about the beauty of science for its own sake. It gives the audience a glimpse into the motivation behind her research, a theme that could have carried the play on its own. But Radiance reveals many other facets of the famous Madame Curie too: Marie the meticulous scientist, Marie the feminist, Marie the lover who is almost ruinously rapturous in her affairs. Comprehensive, yes, but there are so many threads it almost becomes exhausting to keep track. 

Clearly, Marie Curie had a passion not just for science, but for life in general. This seems to be precisely what Alda intended to convey. “The thing that strikes me about her story is that she was someone who was told to be invisible over and over again, and she wouldn’t do it. Instead, she discovered invisible parts of nature and made them visible. She wouldn’t have been able to do it if she’d just kept herself quiet like people wanted her to,“ he told me a few days prior to the play's opening.

Life imitating science - not something you see every day.