Skip to main content

The Curies – Denis Brian ****

The Curies’ story is one that many thought they knew, so the subtitle of Denis Brain’s book, “A Biography of the Most Controversial Family in Science”, is one that inspires interest. What was so controversial? Let’s see…
What’s without doubt is that this is both a fascinating and important story, that Brian tells in detail with obvious affection for his subjects. Part of the Curie story, their huge effort working through tonnes of pitchblende in their shed of a laboratory, exposed to deadly radiation as they attempted to isolate radium is very well known, but this has already happened before page 100 of a 400+ page book. In fact Pierre Curie dies in a tragic traffic accident on page 100 – but the Curie family story is only just beginning. There comes the bizarre public obsession with Mme Curie’s possible affair with fellow scientist Paul Langevin (even leading to a number of duels, though no one was killed) and the increasing role of her daughter Irene, later to form her own Nobel-winning partnership with Pierre Joliot. Equal coverage goes to Marie’s other daughter, Eve, not a scientist but her mother’s biographer. That’s the key to the book’s fascination: it’s not a biography of an individual so much as of a dynasty.
The Curies is thorough and goes into a lot of detail. It has a slightly old fashioned feel when compared with a biography of a more modern scientist (or even with most biographies of Einstein, for instance). It’s hard to pin down exactly what gives this old fashioned aspect – perhaps a certain reverence for the subject, when we’re used to more warts and all approaches, combined with a lack of sensationalism. But this shouldn’t be interpreted as dullness – I really did want to keep turning the page and find out more.
One criticism – early on we learn a little of Pierre’s grandfather, a French army surgeon, who moved the London to practice homeopathy. This is described as “a natural pharmaceutical science that made use of plants and minerals to stimulate the sick person’s natural defenses. He gave his patients small doses of a medicine…” Brian’s description of homeopathy lacks the sort of rigour you would expect in a popular science book. It’s doubtful that homeopathy can be described as a science, given the suspicion with which the vast majority of scientists treat it, and it’s just not true that homeopaths give small doses of a “medicine” – they give water, which once contained a small amount of poison (not medicine), that has been diluted until only the water remains. There are other hints that Brian knows more about the people than the science, most obviously when he falls for the old chestnut of using a light year as a unit of time.
The book could also benefit from some more careful editing. There’s a distinct tendency to say the same thing several times – easily enough done by an author in full flow, but it ought to be picked up in the editing process. For instance we learn on page 130 that “Le Petit Journal got an interview with Langevin’s wife, which was hardly surprising. Her brother-in-law, Henri Bourgeois was one of its editors.” A nice little twist. Or at least it would be if we hadn’t already heard “Mme Langevin’s brother-in-law, Henri Bourgeois, a newspaper editor for Le Petit Journal” on page 126, “despite the dangers of Mme Langevin exposing the affair – especially as her brother-in-law was a newspaper editor” on page 122 and “Perrin… met with Mme Langevin’s brother-in-law, Henri Bourgeois, an editor of the disreputable Petit Journal” on page 120. There are also simple errors of fact that should have been picked up. At one point we read “…would supply Joliot’s laboratory with five tons of uranium oxide, the first five thousand kilograms of which arrived on June 1, 1939.” Erm, Five thousand kilogrammes is five tonnes.
That is just a minor irritation, though. It is still a thoughtful and in-depth look at the Curies as people, and as such is a biography that is very welcome. As for the controversy – there was Marie’s reputed affair, but this was never proved and hardly earth shattering. Joliot could have been said to collaborate with the Germans during the occupation of France – but all the evidence is that he was not a collaborator. He also was a communist in later life, which caused the French government some embarrassment when he headed their nuclear programme. Perhaps this was the controversy Brian had in mind. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Appreciate an interesting collection of lives.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…