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Go Big Read goes “Radioactive” for 2012-2013 book selection

April 23, 2012 By Jenny Price

University of Wisconsin–Madison Interim Chancellor David Ward has selected “Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout” by Pulitzer Prize-nominated New York Times illustrator Lauren Redniss as the book for the fourth year of Go Big Read, the university’s common reading program.

Photo: Radioactive


Ward chose the critically acclaimed illustrated biography of the groundbreaking scientists from a short list compiled by a review committee. He previously charged the committee to focus on innovation in narrowing down the list of 219 nominated titles, making this the first year Go Big Read has been connected to a particular theme.

“‘Radioactive’ embodies innovation and the wonder of discovery,” Ward says. “This book will inspire dynamic discussions across the campus community about the power people have to change the world.”

The highly visual book depicting the discovery of radioactive power defies simple categorization, capturing the complexity of the intersections of science, history and biography. Redniss, a professor at the Parsons School of Design in New York, says she wanted to tell a story about invisible forces: radioactivity and love.

“There’s passion, discovery, tragedy and scandal,” Redniss says in an interview. “But I also thought the Curies’ story was an interesting way to look at questions that affect our world right now.”

A mash-up of a love story, graphic novel and science textbook, “Radioactive” tells the history of the Curies in a way never seen before. Go Big Read steering committee member Lyn Macgregor says it raises questions about the triumphs, personal sacrifices and societal consequences of powerful new knowledge.

“Combine this story with the striking graphics of this book, and it is impossible to put down,” says Macgregor, assistant director for the Robert F. and Jean E. Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies.

The dreamlike quality of the book’s brilliant graphics come from cyanotype printing, which Redniss says she used to capture “what Marie Curie called radium’s ‘spontaneous luminosity.’ “

Cyanotype is a camera-less photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. When the chemically-treated paper is exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, it turns a deep blue color. Redniss decided to use photographic imaging to create the images in “Radioactive,” since it was critical to both the discovery of X-rays and of radioactivity.

Photo: Radioactive

A page from the book that will be at the center of the 2012-13 program.

The New York Times called the book, which has a cover printed with glow-in-the-dark ink, “a deeply unusual and forceful thing to have in your hands … ‘Radioactive’ is serious science and brisk storytelling.”

Redniss traveled the world to research the book. She went to Hiroshima to meet with atomic bomb survivors, interviewed weapons specialists at the Nevada Test Site where nearly 1,000 nuclear bombs were detonated during the Cold War, and interviewed Marie and Pierre Curie’s own granddaughter. She also explored the New York Public Library, poring over its rare books, extensive map collection and hand-painted 19th century travelogues. The book includes some of those archival images, including a copies of the first X-ray image ever made.

“Radioactive” seamlessly weaves science, history and art and is an inspired choice for the reading Go Big Read’s theme of innovation, says Sheila Stoeckel, chair of the selection committee for this year’s program.

“The imagery Redniss uses to tell the story of Madame Curie and those affected by her research evokes an emotional tie to a story that most people know something about,” Stoeckel says. “But Redniss is able to make a newly-founded connection with the reader that is remarkable.”

Go Big Read engages students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members in a shared, academically focused reading experience. The program’s most recent selection was “Enrique’s Journey” by Sonia Nazario.

Planning is under way for how students, faculty and staff will use the book in classrooms and for special events associated with “Radioactive.” Redniss is scheduled to visit campus in October, when she will give a talk at Varsity Hall in Union South. Copies of “Radioactive” will be given to first-year students at the Chancellor’s Convocation for New Students and to students using the books in their classes.

To learn more about the ongoing Go Big Read program, plans for this fall and to sign up for email updates, click here.