Lauren Redniss, author of “Radioactive,” UW-Madison’s GO BIG READ will speak on campus on Monday, October 15th.

It was a great weekend to stay inside and read the 2012 UW-Madison Go Big Read, Radioactive, by Lauren Redniss.  Put forth as a “Tale of Love and Fallout” that explores the lives and science of Marie and Pierre Curie, the book delivers on what is promised.  Then it heats up and starts to glow, shedding quiet light on other themes, such as the nature of spiritual love, the way gender roles shape what aspects of ourselves the world allows us to express, the experience of parental loss and migration, the truth of war, and the way human genius simultaneously creates beauty, awe and the capacity for self-destruction.

Marie and Pierre fell in love with each other and science in a way that cannot be disentangled.  Together they made careful measures with the sensitive instruments of physics, and spent  years sorting through tons of rock to achieve their goals.  They celebrated life with bike rides, adorning their handlebars with flowers in the springtime, and they enclosed themselves for long hours and years in a toxic laboratory environment that would hasten death for both of them.  They made remarkable scientific discoveries, and they participated in seances (also studying them with the physical sciences) with the seekers of their day.  They passed on a complex legacy to their children, who followed them to make significant contributions in the sciences.  Does anyone feel ordinary yet?

Identifying the genre of a literary work is usually straightforward, but Radioactive defies categorization.  Is it a children’s picture book, a science text, a biography, a philosophical treatise on ways of knowing, or a history book?  Is it fact or fiction?  Is it an entirely new genre — or simply an artsy scrapbook?   While a case can be made for all of these labels, I would classify it as non-fiction.  While it reads like a storybook, a closer look at the the narrative reveals that it is actually nothing more than a chain of of small verifiable truths.  By creatively assembling the facts, and citing scientific fact, letters, Marie’s dissertation, newspapers and the scientific journals of the day, Redniss creates a truthful and poetic space for readers to explore the meaning of life, love and science.

I look forward to discussing the book with students and colleagues throughout the year.  If you are in Madison, Wisconsin on Monday, October 15, 2012, you can hear Lauren Redniss talk about her work at 7:00pm in Varsity Hall, Union South.  Admission is free and tickets are not required.

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