11/22/2019

The Passion Of Marie Curie

21:31 minutes

an actress playing marie curie holds a green glowing vial that represents radium
Francesca Faridany as Marie Curie in “The Half-Life Of Marie Curie.” Credit: Joan Marcus

Physicist Marie Curie is remembered as the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first person—of two ever in history—to win two Nobel Prizes. With her role in discovering radium and polonium, and the energy emitted in the decay of large atomic nuclei, she brought us the concepts of radiation and radioactivity. Curie helped lay the groundwork for a revolution in both physics and chemistry.  

two women sit on chairs happily on stage
Kate Mulgrew as Hertha Ayrton (left) and Francesca Faridany as Marie Curie (right). Credit: Joan Marcus

But a new play explores the person behind the brilliant scientist. In The Half-Life Of Marie Curie, we meet Curie after a scandal: She’s been caught having a love affair with a married man. But in a time of depression and isolation, she’s rescued by a friend,  English scientist Hertha Ayrton—also an intrepid but lesser-known physicist, engineer, and suffragette. 

Playwright Lauren Gunderson joins Ira to talk about the deep friendship between the two scientists, the importance of seeing Marie Curie as a person outside her work, and the many connections between storytelling and science. 

The Half-Life of Marie Curie plays in New York City until December 22. It will also be available to listen to on Audible beginning December 6. 


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Segment Guests

Lauren Gunderson

Lauren Gunderson is the playwright of The Half-Life of Marie Curie, and is based in San Francisco, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, former astronaut Kathryn Sullivan recalls what it took to launch the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit nearly– wow, 30 years ago. If you have a question about the early days of Hubble or NASA’s first class of female astronauts, you can give us a call. Our number, 844-724-8255. 844-724-8255, or you can tweet us @scifri.

But first, we turn to Madam Marie Curie, the physicist who helped discover radium and with it radioactivity. And for her work, she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only person to win two in different sciences. It’s possible you knew that last part, but did you know that she also invented a portable X-ray to help injured French soldiers during World War I, or that she drove the ambulance and administer the X-rays herself?

Or, how about this– she had a close friendship with another brilliant woman in science, the English physicist and suffragette Hertha Ayrton? These are all just a few of the things that I learned from a new play, The Half-Life of Marie Curie, which pulls back a curtain to reveal the human side of this scientist. And now, the playwright is with me. Lauren Gunderson is a playwright whose web page loudly proclaims, I love science. Welcome to Science Friday.

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Hi, Ira I’m such a fan of the show. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Well, thank you. You know I’m going to quote from your web page again– I find deep and thrilling drama in the course of scientific progress and put it onstage as much as possible. And you have been doing that during your career

LAUREN GUNDERSON: I have, indeed. It’s almost two decades of diving into science because I think science is incredibly stage-worthy. It’s riveting. It’s emotional. It’s intellectually thrilling. So I always go back to it.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about this latest play, The Half-Life of Marie Curie. It doesn’t actually start with Madame Curie’s science but a personal scandal, right?

– Indeed, yeah. What made me want to write this story was taking something that we do know– Marie Curie– and something we don’t know, which one of those is a person, Hertha Eyrton, her great friend and, as you mentioned, incredible engineer, and physicist, and suffragist, but also this moment in Marie Curie’s life where, frankly, she was closer to Monica Lewinsky than to Albert Einstein.

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS]

LAUREN GUNDERSON: She was brutalized in the press, absolutely just diminished, and the just radical cruelty that she survived because of this love scandal that her secret letters between her and her colleague Paul Angevin were released to the press, and it was just a May Day against her. And here is this incredible woman. This also happened when she was in the process of winning her second Nobel Prize.

And I found those two things deeply interesting, partly because it exposes that scientists are people. They’re not just brains. They are bodies and hearts. And, it is not what we expect of this certain scientist, of Marie Curie. And I found that to be a really thrilling alchemy to put onstage– rich emotion, high stakes, and you know, it becomes a story about this incredible, unstoppable friendship that defines both of these women and, frankly, changes the world as well as saved their own lives.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about that friendship. We meet Marie’s friend Hertha Ayrton, an accomplished scientist in her own right, and I would wager that most people have never heard of her.

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Yes, I hadn’t.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about her– how they met, and what their relationship was.

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Yeah she’s an incredible woman in history– a person in history. So she, like Marie Curie, came from not much and was not expected to be much more than a wife and a daughter, but they both found science. And what Hertha became was this radical intellectual. She was a fan of literature and poetry.

She actually chose her own name from a poem by Algernon Swinburne called Hertha, which he wrote about this goddess of the Earth. So that’s the kind of woman she is. She says, my name is Sarah Marx, but I’m going to choose the name of a goddess. And she finds great inspiration in the sciences, particularly in electromechanics.

So she invented a solution to the electric arc, which was, of course, lamps at that time– this is about turn-of-the-century– and she found a way to re-engineer the lamp so that doesn’t make this terrible hissing and popping noise that it used to. And these lamps were everywhere– on streets, in stages, homes– and so she really saved the world from this racket, but also took the time to investigate all sorts of large and small parts of the physical world– ripples in the sand and wave dynamics.

So I found her incredibly interesting. She was also a political activist during the suffrage protests and movement at that time Pankhurst was a friend of hers. All of the suffragists would come to her house. After they’d been starving themselves in prison, they would go to Hertha’s house to be fed and welcomed back to society. So she’s the most fascinating incredible person. And I didn’t know anything about her.

And there was one little footnote where she was a great and true friend of Marie Curie’s, and they exchanged all these letters, and they visited each other. And then this one moment in time on which the play focuses its this true moment where Hertha basically saved Marie Curie life.

She said, you are in the middle of this scandal. You are physically ill. You are depressive to a concerning point. And I am going to be your best friend. I’m going to save the day. And you’re going to come to my beach house in the countryside of England– the coast of England– and stay as long as you want. And she did.

And both of these women and their daughters spent the time that summer, and it really did save Marie Curie. And I think the play goes into why and how, and how do friends save each other? How are we there for each other? How can this certain kind of deep, true, brave, courageous friendship just really become the bastion and the support that any of us would need?

So in many ways, even though it’s about two scientists, and about history, and it’s about two women, it’s actually all universal, global themes of the human experience.

IRA FLATOW: And in fact, we have a clip from one of the scenes in the play that I really, I really, really liked. And it’s where Hertha and Marie are talking about what moves them most.

ACTOR AS MARIE CURIE: We love our lovers, we adore our children, but our life’s passion is proof.

ACTOR AS HERTHA AYRTON: Proof?

ACTOR AS MARIE CURIE: Yes, knowing what’s true and proving it. Peering for just a moment into the hearts of the universe and snatching some truth before the curtain closes.

ACTOR AS HERTHA AYRTON: Mother nature doesn’t give you much, but when she does?

ACTOR AS MARIE CURIE: She gives you everything.

ACTOR AS HERTHA AYRTON: That is the greatest feeling in the world.

ACTOR AS MARIE CURIE: God, yes, it is.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, Lauren, these scientists are not at all dispassionate or emotionally removed from their work. Do you think that would surprise people [INAUDIBLE]?

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Oh, I think it absolutely would. I think people might assume, oh, this is a history lesson. Oh, this is something unimpassioned and cold because it’s science or sort of scientists– either science is boring or scientists are boring. And none of those are true.

And I will say just an incredible shout out to our actors Kate Mulgrew and Francesca Faridany, who play their hearts out on the stage every night in this production.

IRA FLATOW: They were really great. You know, and I’ve made the mistake over the years. We sometimes– when we talk about scientists, we say there are scientists, and then there are people. You know?

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Right?

IRA FLATOW: Right?

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Yeah!

IRA FLATOW: But your play– I mean, that seems to be a central core of your play is showing how these are– they have emotions. They’re humans. They think about themselves, and their families, and their love life just like real people.

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Indeed, aren’t they just like all of us?

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS]

LAUREN GUNDERSON: That’s, I think, what makes it so compelling, is you get what is incredible about this the study and the rigor of science, you get universal, global themes. You get massive ideas, change-making, world-shaking ideas. But you also get people who make coffee, and are mothers and fathers, and get their hearts broken, and all of these day-to-day human things and, frankly, things that all of us will face– mortality, legacy, meaning.

So in that way, it’s part of why I keep going back to science, is you have this one level that is intellectually rigorous and another that is emotionally engaging. And both of those matter. And I’m married to a scientist– an incredible virologist– and I see in him, as in many of my friends who are physicists and mathematicians– this passion. And it is a quest for knowing that isn’t as detailed as solving an equation– although, of course, that’s part of it. It is big, and philosophical, and metaphysical. And I’m so drawn to that part.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you’re very famous for writing other plays about women in science. I’ll just name one in particular– the famous people like Ada Lovelace, and you also had Emilie du Chatelet. What drew you to Marie Curie?

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Oh, well, it’s funny. I have written a lot about scientists. My very for science play was about a kind of unknown cosmologist named Ralph Alpher. He did win the National Medal of Science before he passed away. But he was a cosmologist. And I read about Newton, and Darwin, and found– I asked myself, well, that’s a lot of dudes. I keep writing all the boys. There must be some other women here.

And of course, it actually occurred to me to write about Marie Curie even back then. This was a decade and a half ago. But I didn’t, in some ways because I thought it was too obvious. So here I am now, finally at a place where I can, I think, gratefully understand her more.

She was a mother. She was a mother of two, as am I. Her female friendships were so fundamental to her vulnerability, to her resilience. And that has been true for me. She had an incredible sister. I have an incredible sister. So there’s something about waiting for this moment in my life to reach across time to talk to Marie Curie about her life.

It felt like it could be a play, again, about all of these fabulously exciting ideas, and radioactivity, and that birth of that science that she was critical and foundational to, but also about being alive, being a person, being a parent, being a friend, being someone whose emotions get away from them, who loses in love, and gains in love, and misses people that you’ve lost in your life. And at this point in my life, I feel like I know her more than I would have if I had written it 10 or 20 years ago.

IRA FLATOW: Was it tough picking the actress for this?

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Oh, my god, well, there are incredible actors. But I will say, as soon as I heard Kate Mulgrew, who is known for Orange is the New Black and, of course, Star Trek, she is an absolute force of nature. And Hertha is the same. And I felt in them, kind of, there was a twinning there. So it felt very right and very real.

And Francesca similarly– she has this fire in her. And what we really wanted was, I think if you look at pictures of Mary Curie and read her speeches, they’re very stoic and conservative, and she looks kind of conservative. And we wanted to find the woman who would, you know, roll her sleeves up and dig through uranium ore for years with no help. Who is that woman? That’s the woman I want to know. And do so while pregnant, and do so while engaged? And like, oh my god. So we had to find somebody with that fire, and Frankie has that.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. That’s great. The actors are terrific. It’s a terrific play. We’re talking with Lauren Gunderson, playwright, The Half-Life of Marie Curie. That’s running in New York City until April until December 22, December 22, and then available on Audible, Audible starting December 6. And it’s only two actors in the play, so it should work on Audible, I think.

Well, she’s going to stick with us. If you have a question, 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri. We’ll be right back after this break, more with Laura Gunderson. Stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking about what we don’t know about Madam Marie Curie– brilliant physicist, pioneering woman in science– and the drama inherent in stories of science. But if you’d like to know more and really enjoy a terrific play, you can go see The Half-Life of Marie Curie. It’s now playing in New York, and it’s written by Lauren Gunderson, who is with us right now.

Well, how do– how much do you decide to put how much science into each play? Whether it’s going to go over the head of the audience, or too deep into the weeds?

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Yeah, I mean, I think what– like with any expertise, you want to hear what it actually sounds like. So I want our scientists in this play and any scientists I write to use the language of science– whether that’s math, or whatever verbiage feels authentic. I think that’s important.

You also have to make sure the science is right. And there is a simplification, but I think in truth, a lot of science ideas can be simplified into an expressible form. Perhaps not incredibly abstract mathematical concepts, but the physics that she was doing and that Hertha were doing were material. And so there is a way to talk about it where it is engaging, exciting, even funny.

What I love so much about this play and this production is how hilarious it is. The actors just bring so much riotous heart to it. But you can do that while still being accurate with the science. And you know, I want people to learn something. I am always– I find that to be a great gift of the theater, is always walking away, almost in any play, learning something new. So I certainly want that to be part of it.

IRA FLATOW: And you use the concept of half-life as a metaphor in this play. What metaphor is it for?

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Yeah, half-life being the moment when radioactive material decays into a different elements. Radium decays to radon and into lead. And of course, that being a metaphor for the human experience, for human life, for all of us– how do we change? There is the core of us that is continuous. You can trace where we come from as people. But we change from a teenager to, you know, all of it.

And Marie Curie is at this particular moment when we meet her, and Herta is as well– a great moment, a crux, a deciding point. And you know, this scandal could very nearly ended her life. And what a tragedy, what a stupid tragedy it would have been to have something this gossipy be the end of this great mind. And it wasn’t, in large part, because of this friendship.

IRA FLATOW: But it was interesting that you have highlighted two women who are struggling in two separate fields for the same kind of recognition.

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Mm-hmm, yes.

IRA FLATOW: You know, one is political, and one is for science. Did you did you carefully weave that in together?

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Yeah, I mean, partly because they were real friends, it was already woven in. Their friendship and the kind of contiguous themes between these two incredible thinkers and women’s lives were very complementary because they shared them. Hertha asked Marie Curie to, basically, borrow her brand a hundred years ago to put her name on the cause of suffrage in England. And Marie always wrote to Hertha about different science and, kind of, life moments. So they shared a ton, and that way, it already braided together beautifully.

IRA FLATOW: Let me go to the phones. Let’s go to Sunnyvale, California. Arlene, hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

ARLENE: Hi. Thank you so much for a fascinating discussion. I had two questions. One was, how did your research about Madame Curie? And secondly, how much of the play is fact versus fiction? And I’ll take the answer off line.

IRA FLATOW: OK, thanks for calling.

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Sure. Yeah, great question. I mean every research– all of the research that I do for my plays is very dedicated. And the only fiction is, we don’t know exactly what they said when doors were closed, in rooms that were not being recorded. But there are many quotes throughout the play, including those of Albert Einstein written to Marie Curie and Hertha’s actual quotes about the power the perseverance of science.

And so all of that is real, and this exact moment in time that it happened. This summer happened. The scandal happened. The timing is intentionally and deeply accurate, because I love digging into those corners of history where we know the bookends. We know where they left and where they came back. But we don’t know what happened in the middle except that lives were saved or discoveries made.

And I think it’s the kind of wonder and the power of theater and fiction that we can time-travel, really. We can go right to the heart of that moment and explore what must have been a crushing emotional experience for Marie Curie and find truth in that that we can all take away.

IRA FLATOW: I think you explore, also, something that most people don’t know, or most people would say, Madame Curie, radium, you know? That sort of thing. But– and it’s the only person they know. But you also talk about the really interesting aspect of using X-rays in World War I, how many thousands, hundreds of thousands of people. She actually drove a van with that X-ray machine, a portable X-ray machine, around to the battlefield.

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Isn’t that nuts? It’s the coolest thing. And she did it with her daughter, she and her daughter. And she invented this X-ray. Of course, X-rays had been around for a decade or so at that point. And she decided, well, let’s make the mobile. So she put them in a war zone.

And again, this is fighting for a country who just, I think, betrayed her, who was calling her these terrible names in the press, basically ran her out of the country for this scandal. And here she is coming back and saying, I’m still a patriot. This is still my adopted country, and I will engineer, and fight, and show up to the front lines. I find that amazing.

And Hertha, of course, also did some amazing engineering at that time for the British military, creating a system to get rid of the horrendous poisonous mustard gas from the trenches. So both of them, even being denied so much by their own societies and scientific communities, still said, you know what? I’ve got a good idea. It’s worth it– and put it out there, and changed the world. I just– I can’t get enough of these women.

IRA FLATOW: And you frequently top of the list of most produced playwrights in America– I mean, more plays being produced on more stages than anyone else.

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: What do you think this says about what audiences want from theater?

LAUREN GUNDERSON: You know, honestly, I know I’m on Science Friday, but I hope it says that people want stories of thinkers and of science. I think now is certainly more time than ever that we need the stories of why science is so powerful, and important, and urgent, and why the stories of women and allied men are this important as well– diverse voices in the American theater.

Because when we go to the theater we go to have our hearts and minds engaged and, hopefully, changed and grown. And I think what people have shown me by this incredible thing, to be on the top of this list, is a commitment to understanding more than you could ever understand by yourself. We’re, you know, bigger, and more, and better together.

And half of my plays, more than half, are about scientists, including a play Silent Sky that’s going to Ford’s Theater in DC in January– a massive, beautiful production. And I’m definitely gonna sit in that Lincoln box, because if you have a play at Ford’s Theater, you’ve got to.

IRA FLATOW: And what’s that play going to be about? What, biography?

LAUREN GUNDERSON: It is. Yeah, it’s the astronomer Henrietta Leavitt. She was one of the Harvard computers who, again, about the same time, actually– 100 years ago-ish– she was one of the people who found what’s now called the standard candle and basically helped us measure the size of the universe. But she did so at the turn of the century, being what they literally called computers. They computed the science for the male astronomers.

And so it’s a gorgeous story about astronomy, and mathematics, and the women who were at the forefront of that field. So again, I hope because these plays are on stages all over it, means that there is- we have not lost what is intellectually compelling and urgent about these stories of big ideas, and big feelings, and people.

IRA FLATOW: You know, the dirty little secret is people love science.

LAUREN GUNDERSON: They do.

IRA FLATOW: [INAUDIBLE] It’s dirty little secret.

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Don’t tell everybody! [LAUGHS]

IRA FLATOW: I have a couple of requests from people. I have a tweet coming in from Paige who says, why don’t you write about Grace Hopper, the mother of modern programming? And someone else says, Rosalind Franklin is overdue to have a play about–

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Rosalind Franklin has an amazing play by– Anna Ziegler wrote about her. She’s incredible. And Grace Hopper, I would agree, just her savvy. And it would be an amazing play.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we wish you great success with this play. It’s going to be here in New York till December 22. And then this is an Audible play, right? Audible-sponsored, this play?

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Indeed, yes. You can download it on December 6 and listen to these incredible actors and the beautiful sound design, and, hopefully, join us wherever you are in the world.

IRA FLATOW: There you go. And congratulations to you, Lauren, for a great play, and hope you keep up the good work.

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Thank you. That means the world, Ira. Thanks for having me on.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Laura Gunderson, playwright of The Half-Life of Marie Curie.

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