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Thorium, Polonium, Radium, Oh My! Marie Curie and Maggie Gyllenhaal Kick Off the 2011 World Science Festival

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Even in the world of science, it is not every day when romance is summed up using words such as diamagnetism and paramagnetism as analogies. Yet Alan Alda manages to intricately tie these concepts into matters of the heart in his new play, Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie, which had its debut reading during the World Science Festival Opening Night Gala Celebration last night at Alice Tully Hall in New York City.

True to the gala spirit, with a science twist, the night was glamorous with guests ranging from media giants Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, and Regis Philbin as well as science giants such as Eric Lander and Antonio Damasio. And of course, there were also the actors, who included Maggie Gyllenhaal, Allison Janney, David Morse, and of course writer and narrator, Alda.

The play sums up over a decade of Marie Curie’s scientific endeavors and feverish love life, revealing a passionate and obsessive scientist who dealt with quite a bit of conflict. To begin with, Curie, read by Gyllenhaal, labored in what sounded like a make-shift lab, handling radioactive material, at a time when women were not accepted in the sciences. In true testament to the struggles of women in science, her part in the studies of radioactivity and its relevance to transmutation was practically dismissed by the Nobel committee when it awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics. Her husband, equal part an intellectual and romantic partner, died tragically in an accident.

And based on the play, there was a little (alright, more like huge) kerfuffle over Curie’s affair with a fellow physicist, Paul Langevin—which almost cost Curie her 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discovery of two other radioactive elements, polonium and radium (the diamagnetism/paramagnetism bit was a dramatized love scene between widowed Curie and the married Langevin, concerning mutual repulsion and attraction). Gyllenhaal was, as I expected, expressive even though this was just a reading; in fact, every actor on the stage brought a captivating and lively interpretation of their character to the performance.

Although the reading was a bit too drawn out towards the end—after all, this evening’s entertainment consisted of seven actors basically sitting in chairs for about two hours reading the play–—it was a great reminder of how scientists and their scientific endeavors are not free from personal and social pressures. It’s a relevant reminder at a time when scientists today face the ups and downs political wielding, funding uncertanties, and of course, media coverage— for both their successes and failures.

And thus commences the fourth reiteration of the World Science Festival, the brain child of physicist Brain Greene and journalist Tracy Day (quite the power couple themselves). Four days of talks that will span every corner of science from aging and longevity to dark matter, and to finish it off, a street festival for families.

Let the science fun begin!

 

Photo of Maggie Gyllenhaal at the WSF Gala courtesy of Kevin Da Silva

About the Author

Neda Afsarmanesh has been press officer for Nature Publishing Group for over two years, settling in to New York City after a couple short stints with the sciences. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in biology from Caltech and a Master’s degree in neurobiology from Boston University. 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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