Tuesday, 21 February 2006

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.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg