Marie Curie is the sexiest story in science history. The Polish-French physicist and chemist may be as famous (alas) for her love life and tragic death as for her essential early studies of radioactivity, first with her husband Pierre, then on her own. This year is the 100th anniversary of Curie's Nobel Prize in Chemistry; she was also the first woman to be awarded the Nobel, and the first person to receive two of them.
But during her lifetime — and even now — scientists were not supposed to have sexy backstories. Following Pierre Curie’s death, she had an affair with a married physicist that landed her and her love letters in the tabloids, which were not much nicer than they are now.
No surprise that since her death, Curie has charmed authors, filmmakers, and playwrights. Add Alan Alda to the list, who makes his playwrighting debut with a tribute to the woman he calls his hero. At the opening gala for the World Science Festival last night, a terrific cast performed a reading of Alda's Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie. Readers included Liev Shreiber, Allison Janney, and Maggie Gyllenhaal in the title role. Gyllenhaal channeled Curie’s stubbornness, obsessiveness, and fragility (she literally wasted away from her long exposure to radium). And while magnetism and radioactivity are used as double-entendres on more than one occasion, Alda manages to foreground Curie’s true passion for science over her personal drama.
Listen to this excerpt of Curie (Gyllenhaal) talking to her lover, Paul Langevin (Shreiber) — Alda reads the stage directions.