BOOK REPORT for Radioactive! by Winifred Conkling

Cover Story: Welcome to the New Age

Talky Talk: Breathing in the Chemicals

Study Buddies: Marie Curie, Lise Meitner

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Extra Credit: Early Feminism, Photos!

Class Standing: Top 15%


Cover Story: Welcome to the New Age

I’m not wild about the cover, although I do like that it makes it very clear that these are female scientists. The tagline, “How Irene Curie and Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World,” makes them sound like a girl power tag-team ready to take on the old boys’ club, which is a bit misleading. (They did take on the patriarchy, but not together.)

I don’t know that the cover would make me pick it up off the shelf, but this is one instance where a Big Face cover actually makes sense!

The Deal:

Everyone has heard of Marie Curie and her husband discovering natural radioactivity, but did you know her daughter Irene and her husband discovered artificial radioactivity? How about Lise Meitner, an Austrian woman of Jewish descent, who discovered nuclear fission but was left out of the Nobel Prize glory?

Radioactive! looks at the lives of these two extraordinary women, not merely their scientific accomplishments. It’s the story of two ladies who took on the male-dominated scientific world, against the social and political odds, made major contributions, and never really got their share of the recognition.

Talky Talk: Breathing in the Chemicals

There is scientific discussion, of course, but this is more a dual biography rather than a treatise on radioactivity. Conkling does a great job of giving the reader enough scientific explanation and background so that they’ll understand the gravity of Meitner and Curie’s discoveries, but the book focuses on the women’s journeys rather than their findings.

As someone without a heavy scientific background, I felt like I understood enough to grasp what the women were doing, but I didn’t feel bogged down in mysterious technical details (I was more of a biology girl, myself). Conkling’s plain language works well here.

Study Buddy: Irene Curie

Irene Curie was the oldest daughter of Marie Curie, and shared her passion for physics. (Her little sister Eve joked that she was the only person in the family not to receive a Nobel Prize.) Blunt and not concerned with social niceties, she built a career for herself—including using x-rays during World War I to diagnose soldiers—even before she married her husband and career partner, Frederic Joliot. Being a Curie opened many doors for her, but she rose to fame and success on the strength of her intelligence and determination.

Study Buddy: Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner was older than Curie, but also lived significantly longer (Meitner took precautions against radium poisoning where the Curies did not!). Her career spanned decades, including a period where she was forced to flee Nazi Germany (and her life’s work). Her work partner, Otto Hahn, threw her under the bus several times (including accepting the Nobel Prize without her, accepting all of the credit for their work along with it) and refusing to stand up for her when she was dismissed from the University of Berlin for having Jewish grandparents.

Extra Credit: Early Feminism

Although neither Curie nor Meitner really identified as a feminist (as far as I know), if the descriptions of their mistreatment at the hands of a male-dominated intellectual community doesn’t enrage you, nothing will. Better yet, they never let it stop them.

Extra Credit: Photos!

I loved that the book was peppered with letters, photographs, and scientific sidebars. It gave a full picture (if you will) of these ladies’ lives, and I preferred it so much more over the typical nonfiction book “six page photo insert.”

Class Standing: Top 15%

Book, when our study date was all said and done, I would rank you in the top 15% of the class. You were interesting and engaging, and never made me feel like I was stupid for failing to grasp the intricacies of radioactivity. By the time we were done, I felt like I knew Irene Curie and Lise Meitner on a personal and professional level. We can study together any time.

Radioactive! is available now.

Jennie lives in San Francisco and has an excessive fondness of historical fiction, spreadsheets, turquoise sparkly things, and bourbon. When she’s not reading, writing, or writing about reading, she cooks obsessively, runs an Etsy shop, and thrifts for vintage everything.