Posts Tagged ‘chemistry’


February 7th, 2011 | Meera

Because he treats cancer patients with radiation therapy, my father has worn a small, square badge on his person every day for the past—oh, I don’t know how many years. Thirty five, at least. The badge measures his exposure to radioactive energy. It consists of a piece of photographic film, a few filters, a flat plastic canister to hold it all together. I used to see it on him often, once. There was a time when I would spend afternoons in his office after school: happy there as I was nowhere else, drawing on smooth, beautiful pieces of printer paper as white as his lab coat and smelling that sharp hospital smell. In my memory, which I tug on like a fishing line until it surfaces—pop!—with what I am seeking—it is yellow, this dosimeter. It has his name on it. It crackles a little, as film does, if you are allowed to press gently down on it with your thumb. But it doesn’t look, to me, particularly impressive. I know it is important but I am not sure why. I know it is keeping him safe but I am not sure how. Should it turn dark, it will counsel danger. It is making something visible that does not want to be seen.

My sister and brother-in-law sent me a book for my birthday this year that does the same thing.

Radioactive is artist and writer Lauren Redniss’s attempt to translate two unseen forces—radiation and love—into visible form. What she has produced, in the name of this goal, is an object of great charm: a literate, supple biography of Marie Curie, illustrated with (intentionally) primitive drawings and collages composed of photographs, primary documents, and found artifacts. The words are set in an original typeface Redniss modeled after the title pages of old scientific manuscripts. Her pages are nothing if not a pleasure to turn—now dark and brooding, now bursting with lurid color, and filled with human figures stretching and deforming into strange proportions, as if made of melting wax.

The book jumps back and forth between the story of the Curies and the contemporary significance of their principal discovery, the phenomenon of radioactivity. Sometimes the juxtapositions are chillingly fitting. On one spread, we see photographs of a pink rose grown in the fallout zone of the Three Mile Island disaster, lovely but mutated. On the next, Marie learns of Pierre’s sudden death in a carriage accident. Buttercups bloom across the page. “The flowers he had picked in the country,” Redniss writes, working from a microfilm she found in the Curie Archives, “remained fresh on the table.”

Too often, unfortunately, these transitions feel forced, not quite living up to the meanings they are presumably intended to carry. A page announcing the birth of Marie’s second daughter is immediately followed by a spread introducing Manhattan Project physicist Irving S. Lowen; the movement feels random. And when an odd little exposition of a radon health spa in Montana appears, complete with an interview with two true believers, the irony—though clear—trips awkwardly on the heels of the previous, haunting, page. Glowing an unearthly orange, it shows a ghostlike negative of Marie’s skeletal body: One assistant described Marie’s presence in the lab as nearly immaterial, “as if she could walk through walls.” Wraithlike, a humming in her ears, and her vision failing after four cataract surgeries, she felt her way among her instruments and through the rooms of her laboratory. At dawn on July 4, 1934, Marie Curie passed away.

It is when Redniss works to make love visible on the page that Radioactive is at its most powerful. An enchanting early spread shows Marie’s first meeting with Pierre in the laboratory of Gabriel Lippman. The two are shyly separated, she on the edge of the recto and he the margin of the verso, their bodies tall and straight and parallel to each other. She looks over her shoulder, eyes so big with watching him that they are easily three times as large as her demure fingertips. He has been drawn with two overlapping countenances—two noses, two mouths, two mustaches, two sets of eyes—as if continually pulling his gaze toward her, then away—drawing motion out of a frozen page.

After Pierre’s death, one page burns scarlet as a flag, a red so bright it seems almost to radiate off the page. On it, themselves bleeding crimson, appear the naked forms of Marie and the married man with whom she is having an affair: her husband’s former student, Paul Langevin. (When their romance becomes public, the ensuing scandal tears the two apart. The pages are black.)

Love, like radiation, inflamed Marie Curie’s life. Both brought her the brightest satisfactions she would ever experience; both also aroused the most blistering pain. And had she a little square of film to wear upon her breast every day of her life, it could only have warned her of one of those dangers.

2011.5. Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout (Lauren Redniss)

Fire is as Fire Does

October 29th, 2010 | Meera

It is the smoke that draws us there, but the fire that keeps us. You smell it first, lifting your head to nose the west wind and the soft ashy odor it brings into the apartment. I have been breathing it too, but like a dreamer—mind unconscious, for the moment, of what the body senses. Then “Do you smell something burning?” you ask, and suddenly I awake to it. Out on the back deck you sight the thick white clouds blowing at us on the middle currents of the great eastward windstorm we’ve been promised that day.

When you come back in the smoke comes with you. “There’s a fire somewhere,” you say, and there is no way to contradict the truth that the words are welcome. I almost laugh, you know. It is like hearing the grumble of a volcano in the distance—oh, far enough away that I know it would never touch me—and wanting the whole damn thing to blow so I can watch it blaze the sky right down. I step outside to find the world has turned a different color. Tiny cinders puff about, as if it is spring and all the cottonwood trees are burning and sloughing, burning and sloughing their seeds away.

I breathe this new version of air. It smells good: the spice and silver smell of burning wood, of food and warmth and comfort and hazard and all the history of hubris and devastation wrapped up in that same prickly whiff. I know it is wicked but I love the smoke. I suck it in, poison of course but still I want it to replace every molecule of oxygen in my lungs, wish for particles of smoke to be carried away on my blood like sooty diamonds so they can feed my tissues with proof of fire until I become a new thing, igneous in nature.

And now there are sirens: two, three, four? They scream into the clouds that billow toward us, but we cannot see the fire. “Do you want to go and find it?” I say, and you nod, and I smile because this, too, is wicked.

Although it is the fire I am looking for, when I see it I am surprised. We follow smoke and sirens two blocks westward; we reach a mad assembly of flashing lights and staring crowds; we stop at its heart and turn our heads to match all the other holy countenances that too are tracking what we sought. We are the last two poppies in an impromptu field of stalks. And what we see is what it was perfectly obvious must be there: a building on fire.

But still I am surprised. The fire advances and retreats in unpredictable ways, seems at first like nothing so much as a hot protean tide pulled by the moon. It flashes from windows, filling the space behind each pane with rufous light.

There are no screams, this is no house with sleeping child or cat or grandmother to be rescued from the flames, and as we stand transfixed you tell me the building is being renovated—or was, until this disaster—so it seems there is no one in danger from the fire’s lash. This feels like permission to adore it, but I haven’t waited for permission. It is not that the fire is beautiful, although it is: dazzlingly so. It is that it is so animate—quick and hot and above all vital against the stillness of the night, like a great flapping bird that might at any moment take off into the sky to inflame the moon.

I lean into you to watch the blaze and wonder what is in it that is missing from me, to make me so cold and slow. Why for years now I have felt that I cannot burn.


What allowed an object to catch fire, 18th-century chemists believed, was an undetectable substance it held inside itself: something that had no color, no form, no flavor, and no smell, but was, in its own way, eager to be free. Phlogiston, they called it, after the Greek word for flame. If a material was rich in phlogiston—charcoal, say, or oil, or phosphorus—then it had an inherent incendiary ability—a fire in the belly.

Under ordinary circumstances, phlogiston was trapped by its bonds to another substance: a sulky, chalky thing called calx. Like two ex-lovers in the habit of cohabiting, phlogiston was captive to calx and calx to phlogiston. But in the presence of heat, everything changed. Now phlogiston was released from its combinatory existence and could escape by itself in a blaze of glory. You could see it, then, leaving the talcum-white residue of calx behind like a crumbled shell. You could see it rising in masses of flame and smoke and ash. Nothing burned but for phlogiston; without it, there could be no fire.

When it was shown that some metals—having flamed themselves to powdery calx—weighed more than they did before, phlogiston was in jeopardy. But a few, to save it, said smiling that this meant it weighed less than nothing. When the matter of fire was trapped inside an object, you see, it lightened it. Ah then. What if? Perhaps what I lack is not a fiery heart, given to rages and conflagration, but an unseen effervescence: the very opposite of a burden.

I think of the woman who tells me I will never be happy until I stop collecting faults like pebbles. That to be fervently alive I have merely to be lighter in my mind. I want to tell her about phlogiston. In eighteenth-century terms you are correct, I will say. A life on fire, burning with passion and love, demands the matter of fire, and if such a thing exists then the form it takes is levity.

But no such thing exists.

I know the truth of the fire, that it is action and not object. That the flames and smoke I see are not what fire is made of but only a testimony to its affairs; that this blaze that rises before us tonight is a chemical reaction between atoms of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon—and that yes, something is being released here, but it is no ethereal substance. No magical matter. Fire is as fire does.

We watch the burning building until it falls still and black under floods of water. The next day my coat smells of its smoke.

Samson and Me

January 10th, 2010 | Meera

At five I couldn’t see the point of hair. I wanted it out of my way, so my mother obliged. She circled me slowly, shearing it off to just above my chin, and the air filled with a most satisfying ripping sound. Close to my ears the scissors crunched, closing their legs hungrily on my black wings.

At eleven I wanted everything under control. I was up when the sun was a murmur, stomach turning at the prospect of breakfast so early. My hair was a thick fountain I had to subdue into a ponytail neat enough for school and my desire to do things exactly right (a desire since mostly lost). I worked and reworked it, each time finding I’d sat my rubber band too far to the left or the right, or that threads of too-short hair were escaping from its noose, or that where I thought I had brushed my scalp into perfect smoothness there was still a small hillock of hair, invisible but to my own questing fingers. My sandwich sat uneaten.

Later I was a teenager, and let my hair down, and—bliss—it was a pair of doors I could shut against the world. Teachers nattered at it, instead of me. (Also, though I did not realize it then, I’d grown a set of blinders. Nothing could be seen beyond the edges of my hair, but for several years there was plenty to occupy me between their curtains: the curve of a friend’s back as she walked away, the crazy softness of a boy’s lip, my gigantic fear of being unloved.)

I began to imagine it would one day grow so long it would descend into the ground like roots, fixing me where I was. Perhaps that’s why it all came off in one dramatic gesture. How many other things were tangled in it! I looked down when it was done and saw them all snipped in half. Slick heat and sweat. The idea of being beautiful. The memory of dancing to “Copa Cabana” some school-day afternoon, laughing through my fingers. Some of them I’d have wanted to keep, if I’d known that’s where they’d been.

The year I turned 21 I was living in Jerusalem with an English boy, and it had been two years or more since I’d sat in a revolving chair, leaning my head back for a cut like a patient ready for surgery.

I was very happy then. As for my hair, it was happy, too. It wriggled with happiness; I could feel it sometimes when we sat on the bus together and everyone else leaned a little towards the speakers, listening to the hourly news. My hair leaned towards the English boy. It waved down my back like the shining tide of a gentle sea. At night we arranged ourselves, he and I, like two bookends tucked into each other. That was so he could brush my hair a hundred times, giving it all the attention of a tailor smoothing out a magnificent piece of fabric that had not yet received its first cut. When we parted the boy took some with him; for all I know he has it still.

Lately I have been cutting my own hair, chopping at it like a woodman who doesn’t care how rough are the edges of the stumps he leaves behind. I am all business. What is gone is gone.

Natalie Angier (I do adore her; she inspired my only fan letter to the New York Times to date) has written that the skin is the organ with the biggest mouth. She says it trumpets our emotions with its goosebumps and blushes, reveals our weaknesses with its scars and scrapes, and is, no matter how much we may wish it to be otherwise, the well-judged cover for a book no one, really, will ever read from first to last page.

She’s right, of course: skin is a loudmouth. But if you ask me, what hair lacks in volume it makes up for in storytelling style. It may be bloodless—at least by the time its questing fibers are pushed up from beneath the scalp—but it has a heartbeat. How else to explain the fact that it can keep time (let’s see skin do that)?

Don’t believe me? Try this. Take a few long strands of hair from a brand new mother, all relief and tears, her sweet infant barely out of its packaging. Get them right from the scalp, and don’t worry; she’ll barely notice you. Take more from a woman whose child is now three-months known, her eyes bleary from 90 interrupted nights. Another from a six-month mother, practically a veteran of cradling and lullabies and midnight messes, and still more from the head of one just beginning to hear her nine-month-old babble like a brook.

All set? Right. Now. Check the very highest tip of the hair from the newest mother, the flickery spot where it emerged from its follicle, for cortisol. That’s a substance that’s a marker for stress (people call it the fight-or-flight hormone). When a woman becomes pregnant she is flooded with cortisol. It soothes her response to pain, gives her more energy, and—some evidence suggests—makes her more attentive to danger. Look at the nib of that hair, and you’ll find cortisol in spades right there, just at the point of her baby’s birth. Now move three centimeters along the hair, and test again. Less cortisol. Another three centimeters, and test again. Still less, in an utterly predictable monotonic progression.

Do the same thing with the hair from the other women, and you’ll find the level of cortisol decreasing from high to low, step-wise along the hair, in just the same way—except now the highest level won’t be found at the tip. It’ll be three centimeters along with the mothers of three-month-olds. Six centimeters along with the mothers of six-month-olds. And so on.

Line them all up against each other, matching hormone levels as you go, and what you get, in effect, is an astonishingly accurate calendar of pregnancy’s effect on cortisol production in a woman’s body. Here is where it all began, two cells meeting, merging, making plans for the future. Here they’ve grown into a little lemon, here there are hands that wave through amniotic fluid as if swimming. Here everything is ready at last, racing like a freight train towards that long-awaited emergence.

All this happens, of course, because a growing hair takes on all manner of free-floating biochemical stowaways in the blood it absorbs from its follicle, each of which is permanently incorporated into its cellular structure at that precise point. If someone were trying to poison you with lead, your hair would know. If you’d been good and given up all your vices, your hair would speak your virtue. And though it has no life of its own, hair still breathes the air you breathe, drinks the water you drink. It remembers where you live.

It’s all there—the inner ebb and flow of anxiety and love, the things you’ve brought into yourself, the places you’ve traveled—all documented in a curl. It doesn’t go away, either. Hair can keep a secret for more than a thousand years, it seems. And knowing that, I am a little rueful over the decades of ink I’ve spilled below my chair. Whole novels’ worth, perhaps. The longer the strand, the deeper the communiqué?

I’m growing it out now, you know. I’m waiting to see what my blood writes in it.

A Very Commonplace Gesture (3)