Analysis & Opinions - Scientific American

The Film Radioactive Shows How Marie Curie Was a ‘Woman of the Future’

| Aug. 09, 2020

A world-famous scientist is depicted with a nuance befitting both her achievements and her struggles.

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.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Russell, Cristine.“The Film Radioactive Shows How Marie Curie Was a ‘Woman of the Future’.” Scientific American, August 9, 2020.