Radioactive: An Interdisciplinary Study of Marie and Pierre Curie

Use this innovative text to show the far-reaching influence of the dynamic Curie couple

By Elijah Ammen

stamp of Marie Curie

Interdisciplinary instruction is crucial to academic achievement, and is receiving a lot of help from Common Core standards that emphasize teaching across content areas. If you're still not convinced, you can check out the two dozen articles we have that mention interdisciplinary planning. The difficulty with interdisciplinary teaching is finding rigorous texts that balance multiple subject areas. Often standards are loosely connected, or meanings forced on texts that don't belong. 

Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss, is a biography of the lives of Marie and Pierre Curie that takes a creative and beautiful approach to telling their story. In addition to the biographical information, Redniss weaves in other historical landmarks that thematically connect to the Curie's research on radioactivity; events such as the Manhattan Project, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the Cold War nuclear tests in Nevada. Redniss also illustrated the book with vivid paintings and original photographs and documents. For an example of her work, you can read the NPR review of the book and see a sample of the artwork or go to Lauren Redniss' website.

Here are some content areas and lesson plans that you can use to tie into the story of Marie and Pierre Curie.


Social Studies

The easiest connection is the Manhattan Project, where scientists from across the world helped the U.S. develop the atomic bomb which was later used on Japan. Redniss makes this connection, particularly between Einstein and the Curies (who were personal friends) and a brief mention of Oppenheimer, the "Father of the Atomic Bomb." For a solid DBQ, check out this lesson, or for links out to helpful websites, try this one. From there, you can discuss the devastating effects of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to connect to Redniss' interviews of Hiroshima survivors.

Once you establish the link between the Curie's work on radioactivity and the bombing of Hiroshima, the connection to the Cold War is simple. This lesson plan bridges the gap between WWII and the Cold War, and explains the escalating arms and space race between the USSR and the US. For a detailed overview of the Cold War, check out this lesson by the same author.


It doesn't get much easier than this. The Curies were pioneers of radioactivity, discovering two elementsradium and polonium, for which they won two Nobel Prizes. Their exposure to radiation caused severe health problems, but they continued their work. The book talks about the half-life of particles, the back-breaking years of work for a tenth of a gram of polonium, and how the Curies built on the work of previous scientists and the discovery of x-rays. If nothing else, this book makes a great mini-lesson on the difficult and often thankless work involved in being a scientist.


As previously mentioned, this book is wondrously illustrated. The colors and styles vary depending on the tone and mood of the story. The art has a modern flair, and complements the text without being direct illustrations of historic events. Readers can infer meaning and apply the emotional nuance to the text. Even the typeface was designed by Redniss, and the text layout is often in unique shapes in order to add to the story. Redniss also includes many photographs and graphs in order to ground this story in the actual history of the events, a perfect balance of reality and artistic license. She also uses cyanotype, a light-sensitive chemical treatment, in her artwork as a nod to the Curies' scientific accomplishments. 


Common Core standards require rigorous interdisciplinary texts that communicate across several mediums. The blend of science, history, and art make this an ideal Common Core text. Here are a few standards in particular that this text meets:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.9-10.RL.5: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.

While this is a literature standard, the way Lauren tells the story thematically and not strictly chronologically is a narrative device that fits well into this standard.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.9-10.RIT.7: Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person's life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account.

The variety of artwork, photographs, and diagrams communicate this biography in a variety of mediums. The visuals often create an emphasis on emotion rather than pure facts, which is a great higher-level discussion to have with your class.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.9-10.RIT.10: By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literary nonfiction in the grades 9-10 complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

At a 921 lexile level, Radioactive falls right in the middle of the 9-10th grade proficiency band. It is a rigourous text with complex scientific concepts and historical connections, while still highlighting a personal story to connect the readers to Marie and Pierre Curie. And ultimately, that's what keeps kids interested; the reality that behind every great discovery and scientific accomplishment, there were real people who had the same struggles that we do today.