Radioactive! – New MS/HS Nonfiction


Conkling, Winifred.  Radioactive!  How Irene Curie & Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World.  Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Young Readers, 2016.  978-1-61620-415-0. 227 p. $17.95.  Grades 7+.

Radioactive! is a dual biography of two women, Irene Curie-Joliot and Lise Meitner, who were pioneers in the field of nuclear physics.  Irene Curie was the daughter of  famous parents, Marie and Pierre Curie.  While the elder Curies were known for their pioneering work on naturally radioactive elements, Irene and her husband, Frederic Joliot, discovered artificial radioactivity (i.e., that a stable element could be bombarded by radioactive particles to form new radioactive elements).  Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie’s work led to a deeper understanding of the atom, and Lise Meitner relied on this understanding to discover nuclear fission.  

Radioactive! goes beyond scientific theory to look at Curie-Joliot’s and Meitner’s life circumstances.  The fact that both women lived in the early 20th century kept the world from realizing the breadth of their achievements.  For example, Irene and Frederic Curie-Joliot won the Nobel Prize in Physics, but Irene was never allowed to join the French Academy of Science.  Meitner  faced an even greater challenge as an Austrian of Jewish ancestry working in Germany during World War II.  Ultimately, Hitler’s policies forced her to flee Germany with little notice (even though she was a practicing Christian).  She left her lab and experiments behind.  Her male colleagues thought nothing of taking credit for her work.

THOUGHTS: Radioactive! is, first and foremost, a biography about two very interesting women.  Some basic background is given into the science of nuclear physics, but readers looking for a scientific volume may be disappointed.  This book is an essential purchase, however, for any school looking to promote awareness of women in science.

At first, this book seems to comprise two discrete biographies about women researchers in the field of nuclear physics.  However, Curie-Joliot and Meitner’s lives, although separate and geographically distant, intersected on many occasions.  The two women experienced many of the same triumphs and frustrations.  Both were painfully aware that science and politics are entangled, and both were horrified that their discoveries were used to create one of the most deadly weapons known to mankind (the atomic bomb).  Winifred Conkling’s writing style is conversational, which made this a quick read.  Radioactive! was also well-researched; there are a number of primary source documents, informative charts, a time line, and a who’s who of famous scientists in the field of nuclear physics.  This was a thoroughly enjoyable book.

539.7- Nuclear Physics          Susan Fox, Washington Jr./Sr. High School

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *