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Alan Alda

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In Love With Marie

Posted: 05/31/11 02:40 PM ET

For the last three years, I've been in love with another woman and my wife doesn't seem to mind, largely because the woman in question was already dead two years before I was born.

I've been submerged in the world of Marie Curie while writing a play about a tumultuous time in her life 100 years ago. I've read everything about her I could find, studied her scientific papers, and even walked the streets in Paris from where she taught at the Sorbonne to the apartment where she had an affair with her lover -- hoping to discover just how breathless she might be when she got there. One day, I was shown through her lab at the Curie Institute, where a page from her notebook (written on the day she discovered radium) is hanging on the wall, behind glass. The young man showing me around the lab swung back the glass and held a Geiger counter up to the page -- and it clicked like a tap dancer.

That click was, for me, the rhythmic pulse of Marie's courage. She must have known at some level how dangerous radiation was, but she wouldn't admit, even to herself, that she was in danger. She may have had to exist in a state of denial to accomplish what she did: she opened up the field of radiation, coining the word radioactivity; she not only found two new elements, she found a new way to find them, using the tools of physics. Shovelful by shovelful, she dug through tons of slag, boiling it down over several years to isolate polonium and radium. She never gave up. Not in the face of discouragement in the inevitable blind alleys in her research, and not in the face of a merciless press that lionized her at first and then turned on her viciously when she broke the social norms of her time. After her husband Pierre's death she was devastated. The love of the brilliant but unhappily married Paul Langevin seems to me to have brought her back from her depression, but when their affair became public knowledge it nearly cost her a second Nobel Prize.

There were times while I was writing her story when I too stumbled down blind alleys. They can't be avoided, and they can be dark and threatening. That's when I would remember Marie's quiet, steely determination to move on no matter how many times she stumbled, and it would give me strength. She kept me going, and that's one of the things I love her for.

It may seem frivolous, even disrespectful to talk about loving Marie, as though I insist on seeing her in a personal way, and not just as the supreme scientist she was. She, herself, would have objected, I think. But for those of us who are not scientists, yet hunger to understand science more deeply, the personal, the human, is our doorway.

Too often, we think of the scientist as a disembodied being, as pure intellect operating in a dimension uninhabitable by the rest of us. The fact is, they're fellow humans -- often way smarter than us, but having the same longings, flaws and aspirations that we do, and I suspect that the best way to meet them is through their humanity.

I've come to this thought after spending much of the last 20 years working in the gap between science and the rest of us. I interviewed about 700 scientists in freewheeling conversations for eleven years on the PBS television series Scientific American Frontiers. I helped start the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, where we offer young scientists training in the skills of communication. And for the last four years I've helped mount the World Science Festival in New York ("RADIANCE: The Passion of Marie Curie" will have a special reading there June 1st, where the audience and I will see Marie and her world come to life in the hands of seven extraordinary and celebrated actors). In all of this, it's the simple humanity of the scientist I've been hoping to discover and share with others. There's a good measure of science in "Radiance" (science thrills me; it's the greatest detective story ever told), and I've tried hard to make the science as accurate as possible, but I've tried always to tell a story.

We're highly social animals -- I'm told by scientists that what makes us different from other animals is an acute social awareness, which is what has made us so successful. The ability to read faces and tones of voice 0- to read, in a way, one another's minds -0 seems to be one of our most valuable attributes, enabling us in earlier times to spread technical innovation. Why then, I wonder, would we ignore possibly our most valuable asset when telling the story of science? Clarity and accuracy are vitally important in communicating science, and acknowledging the flesh and blood of scientists themselves. Their emotional life, their excitement and wonder as they face the mystery of nature shouldn't dilute that accuracy -- it should only make it more vivid.

So, yes, I love Marie. And I hope that you'll love her, too.