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Book review: ‘Radioactive!’ shares stories of atomic age innovators

Every day, when adults go to work, they expect to be there for certain hours.

They expect to finish their tasks, to know what they’re doing, and they expect to get paid for their toils. These are things they count on happening, but as in the new book “Radioactive!” by Winifred Conkling, they probably never expect their work to lead to a cataclysmic event.

Perhaps because she was born to a dedicated pair of scientists, Irene Curie was fascinated by the things that happened in a laboratory. Her father, Pierre, and her mother, Marie, were credited for discovering natural radioactivity and boosting the understanding of atomic physics; Irene, an odd and socially-backward child, grew up wanting to be a part of their work. Indeed, she later took her place at her mother’s side, first in the lab and then on the battlefield. At just 17 years old, Irene taught doctors how to use mobile X-ray machines during World War I.

Though others never thought she’d fall in love, Irene met her future husband, Frederic Joliot, at the Radium Institute at the University of Paris. Soon, her passion became his, and the two ultimately “earned a reputation as a powerful research team,” and for their discovery of artificial radiation. In 1935, they shared a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Their rival, Lise Meitner, didn’t have the same opportunities.

Because she came of age at the turn of the century in Vienna, Lise had to practically beg for schooling. Once educated, she had a hard time finding work as a physicist. Even after she landed a job, she had to relinquish it to flee the Nazis at the beginning of World War II. Working secretly through letters to an old colleague stuck in Germany, Lise eventually figured out something that had the Joliot-Curies baffled.

Albert Einstein — once he heard of the work the Joliot-Curies and Meitner were doing — “grasped the gravity of the situation.” He understood that their discoveries in radioactivity and nuclear fission could be “used to create an atomic bomb.” He knew that President Franklin Roosevelt would want to know it, too, and that the U.S. didn’t have time to waste…

As an adult who is not a physicist, I struggled mightily with some of what’s inside “Radioactive!” There’s a heap of heavy-duty science here, and Conkling does an admirable job in trying to keep it all teen-friendly, but there’s still quite a bit to chew if you’re in the target audience of 12- to 14-year-old readers.

And yet, I liked what I read. Conkling offers science, but the stories of heroics and determination that drove Curie and Meitner are what make this book truly enjoyable. These women, both immersed in a male-dominated world, simply would not be deterred from their passions, which is beyond admirable; what Meitner endured is absolutely astonishing.

While any kid can try tackling this book, I think those who are keenly science-minded will get the most out of it. For them, “Radioactive!” will be inspiring, action-packed, and you can expect they’ll like it.

— View publishes Terri Schlichenmeyer’s reviews of books for children and teens weekly.

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