Too often, the towering figures of science remain stick figures in the history books, known for their discoveries and accomplishments but not as the complicated, all-too-human people behind those achievements. The stick-figure version of Marie Curie, one of the most famous scientists of all time, describes a pioneering researcher on radioactivity who discovered two new elements and whose revolutionary findings about the atom had widespread applications throughout the 20th century—from medicine to the atomic bomb. Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win two Nobel Prizes, and the only person to win them in two different scientific fields, physics (1903) and chemistry (1911). These were phenomenal achievements, regardless of gender.
But while the new film Radioactive rightly celebrates Madame Curie’s brilliance, it also reveals her courage as a female scientist struggling with the male-dominated scientific community. She had to fight for even the most rudimentary of laboratory space and face-down those who stood in her way. Fortunately, she found a scientific partner and later husband, Pierre Curie, who shared her passions and fought along with her for scientific justice.
The movie also allows Curie to step down from her scientific pedestal as she faces the tragic early death of Pierre in 1906 at 46 and an international scandal over her 1911 affair with a married colleague, Paul Langevin, which drew punishing newspaper headlines and an angry mob at her doorstep, screaming epithets and urging her to “go home” to her native Poland.
The film is not a nuts-and-bolts science lesson, but it does provide a window into the importance of the Curies’ discoveries and the challenging lives of scientists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We watch the husband-wife team as they conducted painstaking experiments in their underfunded labs and endured back-breaking labor to shovel, crush and boil tons of pitchblende ore to measure signs of radioactivity hidden within.
Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Warsaw, Poland, on November 7, 1867, she emigrated to Paris in 1891, at age 24, to study physics, chemistry and math at the University of Paris. She finally managed to get space in Pierre Curie’s lab; their joint scientific work brought them together, resulting in marriage on July 26, 1895. Her bridal costume was a practical navy blue. Marie is reported to have told Pierre: “I have no dress except the one I wear every day. If you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark so that I can put it on afterwards to go to the laboratory.”
The Curies loved long-distance bike trips. With a romantic flourish, the new film shows them riding side by side into the countryside, stopping along the way, stripping down to swim nude in a lake and lying naked on a blanket beside the shore (What? Scientists have sex too?).
The movie portrays the Curies as scientific equals, although Marie was often the leader in the early understanding of radiation—she coined the word “radioactivity”—and the discovery of the new elements radium and polonium (named after her native Poland). However, the inevitable sexism of the time nearly resulted in Marie initially being left out of the 1903 Nobel in Physics, which Pierre was to share with physicist Henri Becquerel, whose accidental discovery of a new form of radiation preceded the Curies’ work.
Fortunately, Pierre got advance notice of the commendation and insisted that Marie share in the honor as well. “I told them if there’s a Nobel to be won, we’ll win it together,” he announces in one film scene. One gets the sense that if Marie not been added, there would have been hell to pay in the Curies’ personal and professional worlds. In the film, their marriage is strong, and Pierre is the ultimate champion of his wife’s achievements, telling her, “You did the extraordinary. You changed the world.”
Madame Curie is portrayed with admirable “don’t mess with me” strength by the remarkable British actress Rosamund Pike. Her Madame Curie is bold—even arrogant—and not afraid to speak her mind. At one point, she says to her husband “you have one of the finest minds I’ve ever met. It just so happens that mine is finer.” After the tragic death of Pierre, who was trampled by a horse-drawn wagon, she loses her stoicism, privately breaking down in heart-wrenching sobs of despair. “Here is this brilliant, quite severe, sometimes odd creature who underneath has this well of emotion and love that most people never saw,” noted Pike in an interview.
As a film, Radioactive has met with mixed reviews, in part because the Iranian-French graphic novelist and director Marjane Satrapi chose a risky device to show how the Curies’ work later impacted the world. Her didactic “back to the future” approach jumps from the historic time of Marie Curie’s work forward to the use of radiation therapy in the late 1950s to treat a young boy suffering from cancer. It also spells out how the Curies’ basic research eventually led to the atomic bombs dropped 75 years ago over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, to nuclear testing in Nevada in 1961 and to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in 1986. Connecting the dots in this way is distracting—and a bit awkward—but it does show the astounding impacts the Curies’ transformative work would have on the history of the world.
In her own time, Madame Curie saw both the positive and negative health impacts of radiation, including its ability to shrink tumors. Before his untimely death, Pierre, plagued by a hacking cough, was already showing signs of illness from repeated exposure to radiation in their research. She, too, falls prey to radiation-related ailments, leading to her death at 66 on July 4, 1934 from aplastic anemia, a blood disease likely due to exposure to large amounts of radiation over her lifetime.
Many books, plays and films have drawn portraits of the First Lady—and First Couple—of science. What I liked about Radioactive was the complex, nuanced way in which Pike portrays the driven Marie Curie and her ambition, determination and imperfections in pursuing a life befitting her brilliant mind. The stick-figure image I had of Marie Curie is replaced with a flesh-and-blood woman who conducts her painstaking science wearing the suffocating high-necked, floor-length dresses of the time.
But when she takes those clothes off, we see her as a woman whose romantic and sexual desires led her to risk her illustrious reputation for an ill-fated love affair. Marie Curie was a major celebrity in her time, idolized by the public and then viciously torn down by the press—a cycle we’re all too familiar with today. Idols fall hard, and Marie Curie suffered the scorn of France and the world, yet went on to win a second Nobel Prize that year.
Madame Curie also aided the French war effort, fighting for funding and even offering to melt down the gold in her Nobel medals for mobile x-ray units that could be taken to the battlefield to help reduce the number of unnecessary amputations. The film shows her driving such a unit—they were dubbed petites Curies (little Curies)—joined by Irène, one of her two daughters, who was working in a hospital and beginning her own scientific research career. (Irène Joliot-Curie and her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie would go on to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for their discovery of artificial radioactivity. They, too, died from illnesses related to overexposure to radiation).
Marie Curie stared down the sexism and obstacles she faced in her day, providing a legacy of achievement and recognition that has inspired generations of scientists, particularly women interested in pursuing research. She would likely have been surprised at the slow pace of achieving equality in the sciences, particularly in her fields of physics and chemistry, that has continued to this day.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Radioactive, recently released on Amazon Prime Video, is a timely reminder of the importance of science and scientists in our society. “The movie can be seen not only as a biopic of Marie Curie but also as a spirited defense of science itself,” said a Los Angeles Times article titled “Why It’s Time for Scientists to Become Cinematic Superheroes.” Director Satrapi and actress Pike (both former Oscar nominees) wanted the film to be heroic and inspirational, showing Madame Curie as a scientific superstar, as well as wife and mother who is relatable to a nonscientific audience. As Pike noted, “We presume a child will relate to Wonder Woman more readily than she’ll relate to Marie Curie. But why?”
Even today, says Satrapi, more than 150 years after her birth, Marie Curie “is a woman of the future.”