Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review: Marie Curie by Janice Borzendowski

Today is Ada Lovelace Day! Who was Ada Lovelace? Well, she was the world's first computer programmer. In the 19th century. That's right, she was so awesome she figured out how to program a computer before computers actually existed.

I first learned about Ada Lovelace in Scott Westerfeld's Midnighters trilogy where she is an inspiration to one of the characters. I didn't learn about Ada Lovelace Day until it was too late for me to properly celebrate, but I marked my calendar and made sure I'd be ready this year!

The purpose of Ada Lovelace Day is to celebrate women in technology and science. Since this is a book blog, I figured it would be most fitting for me to look at biographies. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. I like to focus on two things here: recent books (in the last year or so) and young adult/middle grade titles. Searching my library for books on women in science or women in technology yielded almost nothing for MG/YA readers (everything was either picture books or long adult texts). So I had to dig into my limited knowledge of women in science/technology to find a biography on a specific woman - and it was still hard to find one that had been published in the last decade, let alone the last two years. I finally found this Marie Curie biography, from the Sterling Biographies series.

Before I read this, I certainly knew of Marie Curie - she's one of the few historical women that was studied outside of women's history month for me. I knew she lived in France (okay, I actually thought she was French - she was actually born in Poland) and discovered radiation (which really isn't true, either). So, actually, I apparently knew nothing of Marie Curie nee Maria Sklodowska.

Borzendowski's biography does an excellent job of introducing us non-science types to the basics of Curie's research (which didn't involve discovering radiation, but she did coin the term radioactivity) and includes helpful sidebars on defining concepts like "radiation" and "elements and compounds" as well as histories of Poland (when Curie was born, the country was controlled by Russia) and bits on women's rights at the time (Curie achieved lots of firsts - first woman to win a Nobel prize, first person to win one in two separate categories, first woman to graduate from the Sorbonne, etc. etc.). The extra information means this biography is useful outside of a science classroom, and can be easily understood by anyone.

Awhile ago, I saw this slideshow at Slate that looked at how presidents are presented in children's biographies and found that in the biographies meant for children, the presidents were all great people well before they took office. Curious, I wondered if the same thing might hold true in Borzendowski's book. Not having time to check out a stack of adult biographies of Curie from the library, I settled with her Wikipedia page. The only major difference I found was the Wiki claims that Curie definitely had an affair with Paul Langevin while he was married and after she was widowed. The biography says that Curie always denied the affair, which I suppose is true and doesn't actually conflict with what the Wiki says. On the other hand, Langevin's Wikipedia page merely says he "reportedly" had an affair with Curie - and, in an example of how Wikipedia can end up playing a little loose with the facts, all of the citations in the entire article are reportedly to back up that fact.

One thing I absolutely loved reading about is how the presentation of Curie's work has changed in the last century. I was aware that Curie had worked with her husband, though until I read this I didn't know how deep that relationship ran. When the Curies won half of the Nobel prize in physics in 1903, only Pierre Curie was allowed to give a lecture. That happened repeatedly in their relationship, where Marie wouldn't be allowed to present her own research. Luckily, Pierre was always sure to give her proper credit for her hard work and discoveries. In the last hundred years, however, I'd argue that Marie Curie is the better known scientist, while her husband is usually thought of as secondary.

While the feminist label is never directly applied to Marie Curie in Brozendowski's book, it's clear that she held feminist values close. She often worked as a teacher of female students, and when she had her own laboratories, many of her lab assistants were women. The world needs more women like Marie Curie even today, as the New York Times reported this week that there are still persistent biases against women in science and mathematics.

In the comments, please leave links to your Ada Lovelace Day posts, tell me about your favorite woman in science/technology, or just give me some pointers towards some great YA nonfiction on the subject!


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