Skip to main content

Tag: Radioactive

Happy Halloween from Marie and Pierre!

These phenomena that we have seen seem to us inexplicable by any trickery–tables rising from four legs, transport of faraway objects, hands that pinch and caress you, luminous apparitions.  Everything in a place that was prepared by us with participants we know well and with no possible deception. –Pierre Curie

Image courtesy of the National Media Museum.

The spooky image to the right is an example of spirit photography, a relic of the Spiritualist craze that swept Europe and North America in the mid-19th century.  Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century Swedish mystic, theologian and scientist, is widely credited with inspiring the Spiritualist movement: his writings on the spirit world and the nature of the human soul were devoured by readers eager for some hint of what lay on the “other side.”  Swedenborg’s work, and the work of those who followed him, became particularly popular in the Victorian age—the era of Victor Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper and Count Dracula—when the intersection of the scientific and the spine-chilling did not seem wholly unlikely.  Many prominent figures of the time were fascinated with spiritualism, including Pierre Curie.

Spiritualist mediums and mystics made claims of communication with the dead, and seances were usually well attended by believers and skeptics alike.  Pierre Curie was particularly interested in the work of Eusapia Palladino, a famous Italian medium.  Her veracity was highly contested; it was quickly discovered that she would “cheat” whenever possible, but her fans insisted that plenty of things took place at her seances that could not be explained by trickery.  Pierre Curie treated the seances as a science experiment, taking careful measurements and notes.

Image courtesy of the National Media Museum.

Spirit photography was just as popular as the seance, perhaps more so, because the photographs were believed to be documented proof of ghosts and other spiritual activity.  One of the most famous cases was that of the Cottingley Fairies: photographs were published of two young English girls sitting and playing with fairies near the brook at their country home in the early 20th century.  The photographs were declared by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to be undeniable evidence of psychic activity.  Decades later, the two girls in the photographs, now elderly women, admitted that the entire affair was a hoax.

In her October 15th lecture on campus, Lauren Redniss pointed out that the Curies, with their interest in Spiritualism, were simply following their instincts as scientists: they could not dismiss the idea simply because it seemed unlikely.  After all, the isolation of polonium and the discovery of radium had once seemed equally unlikely.  Why shouldn’t two scientists entertain the possibility that there might be more to the world than they knew?

If you’d like to explore the world of Spiritualism, or just want to get into the Halloween spirit, check out these spooky links:

The Spirit Photographs of William Hope, a Flickr gallery by the National Media Museum
Do You Believe?, a “Ghostly Gallery” from the American Museum of Photography
Spiritualism at the Victorian Web
The Case for Spirit Photography, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Disembodied Spirit, Alison Ferris
Eusapia Palladino and Her Phenomena, Hereward Carrington
Spirit photography is alive and well today (pun intended)!  Check out these galleries of modern day spirit photos.

Happy Halloween!

Brooke Williams, GBR Grad Student

“Draw Your Love Story” at Chadbourne and Ogg

The “Draw Your Love Story” banner at Ogg.
Earlier in the semester, residents of Ogg Hall and Chadbourne Residential Learning Community (CRC) were invited to participate in a unique project: to create pieces of visual art that depicted their individual passions.  The Go-Big-Read-inspired project offered students a chance to show off their own “love story,” a part of themselves which they might not otherwise have shared, and explore the things that mattered to their fellow residents.  Students also had the opportunity to attend a small-group discussion with Lauren Redniss as part of Go Big Read and the “What Matters to Me and Why” lecture series.  Below, two students who helped CRC with the project share their views.

“The ‘Draw Your
Passions’ event that CRC did was a great success! It
was really exciting to see the wide variety of
passions and interests our residents have and the
diverse community that makes up CRC and all of our
residence halls. It provided a great backdrop to the What Matters to Me and Why with Lauren Redniss, as she
talked about all of the things that inspire her as a
writer and artist. Both the CRC’s Passions event and
the What Matters to Me and Why series allow us to
explore the unique experiences and interests we have
that impact where we go in life.” –Ashley Trewartha

“We were inspired
to have students draw their passion in anticipation of
Lauren Redniss’ visit to Chadbourne, because
Radioactive explores the ways in which Marie Curie’s
passions influenced her life and her work. Hers is a
story that reminds us all that if we persevere in our
passions, we will have a huge impact on our chosen
field. Having residents draw their passions not only
asked them to think about what had given them purpose
thus far, but also what was motivating them to get to
where they want to go.” –Elise Swanson

Lauren Redniss was thrilled to see the displays when she came to campus, and was presented with a gift bag from Chadbourne.
Marie Curie puts in an appearance!
The display of artwork at Chadbourne.

Memorial Library Curie Exhibit

Pierre and Marie Curie with their bicycles.  Image source.

Next time you’re in Memorial Library, don’t just run past whoever’s checking IDs and head straight for the elevators!  Stop for a minute and enjoy this fascinating exhibit on Marie and Pierre Curie.  It’s right in the lobby, so you can easily check it out as you rush up to the stacks or to hunt out a study space.  Below is the official description from Robin Rider in Special Collections:
“In conjunction with this year’s Go Big Read
selection, Radioactive
by Lauren Redniss, an exhibit in the lobby of Memorial Library
highlights both the scientific work of Marie and Pierre Curie and
articles about them in publications aimed at the general public.
Marie and Pierre Curie — together, separately,
or in collaboration with others — produced scores of scientific
articles and longer works, some of which are on display. The dates
stamped within the volumes of such publications show that the
University of Wisconsin library received many of them quite
quickly, sometimes within just a few weeks of their publication in
Europe – this, at a time when such European publications reached
Madison by a combination of ship and rail.
The exhibit also includes a sampling of mainly
American publications from the 1920s and 1930s illustrating the
place of Marie and Pierre Curie in the public eye (and the public
imagination). All of the volumes on display are from the holdings
of Memorial Library.”
The image featured above comes from Marie Curie’s book Pierre Curie. Avec une études des “Carnets de laboratoire.” Paris: Denoël, 1955.  Full citation here.
Brooke Williams, Go Big Read grad student

“Uranium and U”: Capitol Lakes talk

Interested in learning more about some of the science behind radium and radioactivity?  Tomorrow, Capitol Lakes is hosting a talk by Cathy Middlecamp, associate professor of environmental studies at the Nelson Institute.  Below, find Cathy’s description of the talk:

Any search for radioactive substances will quickly lead you to uranium and its radioactive decay products, one of which is radium.  Over the centuries, humans have done some amazing things with uranium.  Why has uranium been mined  What happened when it was?  And how does that connect to your own life?  This presentation will take you on a lively romp across the planet.  It will pass through your backyard, through other peoples’ backyards as well, and even though some of the bead shops that might be in your neighborhood.

The event is free and open to the public, and will begin at 10:00 am on Tuesday, October 23rd.  Capitol Lakes is located at 333 W. Main Street.  For more information (including parking info), check out the campus calendar.

Cyanotype Workshop at MPL

Two of the wonderful librarians (and graduates of the UW-Madison School of Library and Information Studies) at the Library as Incubator Project helped document a public library cyanotype workshop last weekend.  They were over at the Madison Public Library’s Sequoya branch, where artist Aliza Rand led a cyanotype workshop.  You can read the full post about their experience on the Incubator, but below, check out a few samples of the beautiful work that was produced.  Click to enlarge.

Cyanotype project from Madison Public Library workshop, October 2012. Photo by Erinn Batykefer.

Cyanotype project from Madison Public Library workshop, October 2012. Photo by Erinn Batykefer.

Cyanotype project from Madison Public Library workshop, October 2012. Photo by Erinn Batykefer.

If you’d like to try your hand at cyanotype, don’t worry!  You have not missed your chance!  Aliza Rand will be hosting another cyanotype workshop this Sunday, October 21st, at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.  The event is free and open to the public, and runs from 1pm until 3pm.  Click here for more info.

Brooke, GBR grad student

Lauren Redniss at Varsity Hall

Radioactive author Lauren Redniss with Chancellor Encore David Ward and a sign language interpreter.

When Lauren Redniss took the stage on Monday night, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Not that my expectations were low; I just wasn’t sure how, exactly, an hour-long talk could incorporate all of the interesting things about Radioactive.  Unlike many other authors, Redniss was charged with the task of discussing not only the process of researching and writing, but also the process of creating the unique artwork and aesthetic that is as integral to the book as the narrative. Redniss explained that she wanted Radioactive to be a “complete object, with every aspect carefully considered.”  Nothing about the book, she said, is “set on a default setting.”  She even put in the work of designing her own typeface, in addition to experimenting with a new method of artistic printing, arranging the text to fit the moods and shapes of each individual page, and, of course, actually writing the whole thing.  Now she just had to tell us how she did all of it.

It’s not often that an author giving a lecture is faced with such a tall order, but Redniss carried it off with aplomb.  She began by giving a short summary of the book, and then took us back into the work’s very beginnings: her drawings for the New York Times and her first book, Century Girl.  From there, she moved into Radioactive itself, beginning with the research and writing and following it up with a discussion of the book’s visual elements: not only the cyanotype process itself, but the various sketches and inspirations that eventually found their way into the pages, as well as those that didn’t.

Redniss signs a book for a fan.

If you’ve been following us on Twitter, you’ll have seen that I live-tweeted a few of my favorite lines during the event itself (as often as I could without bugging the people around me!).  But there is one line that particularly stood out to me, which I live-tweeted in paraphrase but want to bring up here in its entirety.

There is a kind of cliche about writing, a kind of mantra that’s repeated to aspiring writers: write what you know.  I’m sure you’ve heard this. I think about that. I think it could be fine advice, as long as it’s not interpreted as, “Don’t bother writing anything new, just write about whatever you happen to know already.”  So I think maybe another way that that advice could be interpreted is, “Go out, pursue what interests you, learn about it, be absorbed in it and immersed in it, and then come back and then write about what you now know.”

This, I think, is such a refreshing and useful way to look at writing.  Certainly, as Redniss herself pointed out, a great deal of the work that went into Radioactive was learning: being no scientist herself, Redniss had a lot of reading and exploring and thinking to do as she chronicled the life of one of the world’s greatest scientists.  And I also think that this quote speaks particularly well to the University’s Year of Innovation.  That’s what we’re all here for, isn’t it?–to innovate, to go out and learn things and immerse ourselves in learning.  That was what the Curies did, and it was what Lauren Redniss did, as well.  And we should all follow in those footsteps.

Redniss signs books and meets with members of the community.

The wonderful photos above were taken by Micaela Sullivan-Fowler, one of our campus librarians.  If you would like to view her full gallery of photos from the event, click here.

If you weren’t able to make it to the talk, you can watch a video on our homepage
(the link is under “Features”).  Unfortunately, the video is not yet
captioned, but a captioned version should be available soon.  A
transcript of the event is also on its way, so please let us know if you
are interested in receiving a copy.

For those of you who did come: we hope you enjoyed it, and we’d love to hear your reactions to Redniss’s discussion!  Let us know what you thought on Twitter, Facebook or in the comments below.

Brooke, Go Big Read grad student

Suggest a Question for Lauren Redniss’s October 15th Lecture at Union South

Would you like to ask this year’s Go Big Read author a question about her book, her writing process, etc.?

Lauren Redniss’s October 15th lecture at Varsity Hall, Union South, is
free and open to the public. The event will begin at 7 pm (doors open at
6 pm) and no tickets are required. We hope you’ll attend and invite
anyone you know who might be interested.

Due to the large scale of the Varsity Hall event, the question and answer period will be moderated. Questions should be suggested in writing by October 10th. The moderator will select a representative set of questions and ask them of Lauren Redniss at the event.

If you would like to suggest a question, please post it as a comment to
this blog post. Please also consider including your name and some very
brief information about yourself (e.g., your major, unit, etc.).

Please note that blog comments are moderated so there may be a delay of
up to 24 hours between submitting your question and seeing it appear on
the blog.

Manya: A Living History of Marie Curie

The Polish Heritage Club Wisconsin-Madison is offering a great opportunity for families to learn about Marie Curie’s story through live performance: come see Storysmith Susan Marie Frontczak in Manya, her one-woman show about the life of Marie Curie.  You can find all the necessary details on the poster above (click to enlarge, or click here for a downloadable PDF version).

However, I do have two things to point out:
1. $4 suggested donation–that’s definitely a deal you can’t beat!
and 2. The performances are on October 14, the day before Lauren Redniss comes to speak at Union South.  What a fantastic way to get ready for her discussion of Radioactive and Marie Curie!

Brooke Williams, GBR grad student

Marie Curie & Radium

The talented trainers at DesignLab have done it again.  A few weeks ago, we showed you the Radioactive-inspired pages they made as part of their “training boot camp” (if you haven’t checked those out, definitely do so now!).  Today, DesignLab TA Kevin Gibbons sent us a comic he created, depicting Marie Curie’s “love-kill” relationship with radium, as part of a workshop on e-writing assignments. (Click to enlarge.)

Want to make your own comic or other media project?  Visit the DesignLab website and find out how to set up an appointment with one of their talented TAs.

As a sidenote, we love it when people send us visual work inspired by or relating to Radioactive!  If you’d like one of your creations to be featured on the blog, send us an email at  Please refer to this post for further information about submission guidelines.

Brooke Williams, GBR grad student

Women in science at UW-Madison

The Curies (image source)
It is difficult to decipher whether Marie Curie is more famous as a scientist, or as a female scientist.  Obviously, these two things are not mutually exclusive; but when Madame Curie was working, they may as well have been.  While she was not the only female scientist in the field during her lifetime, women in science were still a rare sight in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, largely excluded from many of the major universities and laboratories.  Yet Marie, through the simple fact of being industrious, brilliant and female, made great strides toward gender equality in the sciences.  It would have been difficult to argue convincingly, even in a time when women were expected to stay at home and raise the children, that a scientist of Marie Curie’s caliber ought to give up her important pioneering research because she happened to be female. 
Marie left some pretty big shoes to be filled by the female scientists of future generations; but, according to this UW-Madison News article, those shoes are being filled every day by women here at UW-Madison.  According to the article, between 2000 and 2011, the biological sciences have seen an increase from 19% to 28% in female faculty, while physical sciences have gone from a 9% female faculty to 16% in the same period.  But Donna Paulnock, Associate Dean for Biological Sciences in the Graduate School, points out that the idea is not just to hire more women and even out a gender ratio:
“The goal is having as many women as possible in any pool of applicants
so we can evaluate them according to their accomplishments, and hire the
best person.”

The article also points out some roadblocks that face women in the sciences, and how those can be overcome, as well as some programs and initiatives put in place to encourage women and girls toward a scientific career.

As Marie Curie has proven, genius doesn’t discriminate by gender; and with more intelligent, accomplished scientists, male and female, working and researching and inventing and making discoveries, the result can only lead to greater innovation–which is better for all of us.

Brooke Williams, graduate student