Radioactive!: How Irène Curie and Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World

The early Twentieth Century, dubbed the “Golden Age of Physics,” was an exciting time for scientists, as some of the greatest minds in history rattled off discovery after discovery.  When we look back to this time, we often remember the names of famous men like Albert Einstein, who discovered General Relativity in 1905.  However, women also played undoubtedly enormous roles in the advancement of modern science as well.   Yet these women have often been overshadowed by their male counterparts throughout their careers.  Fortunately, Winifred Conkling's novel Radioactive shines a light on two of these women - Irène Curie and Lise Meitner -     and gives them the recognition that they deserve.
 
The book was essentially two biographies in one interconnected and vivid story.  It flashes forward to the encounter between Irène Curie and Lise Meitner in the 1933 Solvay Conference in Belgium, where the former scientist’s work was openly challenged by Meitner in the presence of forty world-renowned physicists.  Then, it flashes back and starts an account of the life of each scientist.  It describes the events that led up to and followed the discovery that happened right after the aforementioned Belgian conference and made both scientists famous - the discovery of artificial radioactivity.
 
This unorthodox structure of a scientific biography was already enough to arouse my interest.  However, it was still a novel, and thus I was faced with unending masses of words across many pages.  Yet, all things considered, I really enjoyed this book - chiefly for two reasons.
 
The first reason why I liked this novel is that it didn’t just skim the surface of topics like other biographies do.  It actually goes in depth and explains not only the achievements and work of the scientists, but also their backgrounds and personal lives and how they influenced their work.  For instance, the book describes how unique Irène Curie’s  life was.  Her mother, Marie Curie, gained fame as the only person to win two Nobel Prizes.  Thus, Irène Curie was, by birth, very fortunate compared to others.  However, her background was a double-edged blade.  Marie’s fame inherently made expectations high for her daughter.  Consequently, Irène constantly lived in her mother’s shadow.
 
The second reason why this book is a great read is that it contains many sidebars. Prior to reading the book, I didn’t know much about physics.  In fact, it was actually one of the subjects I disliked the most.  However, the sidebars helped me understand the concepts behind all of the major breakthroughs that were discussed.  Without them, I would not have understood the fundamentals of modern, Twentieth-Century science that were the basis for the discoveries of Curie and Meitner.
 
On a scale of one to five, I would give Radioactive a four.  Even though I’m no science geek, this book, with its complete descriptions of two important scientists and helpful array of sidebars, is a pleasure to read.

Review by Adam T.
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