In modern science, it is pretty typical that certain people are heavily praised for their work, and that some people never really make it out of the shadows. Two pieces, Radioactive by Lauren Redniss and the film Hidden Figures, attempt at focusing on the latter. Because scientific fields have been predominantly male, it is often that we don’t hear about these women in these works in our normal education. Marie Curie, who is a physicist, is outlined in Radioactive, and three women, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson who all worked for NASA are depicted in the film. All of these women deserved more of the limelight, and these works did a great job of providing that, but each have their own strengths and weaknesses regarding their accuracy and public appeal.
Radioactive by Lauren Redness is a scholarly text, but it is not at all what you would expect it to be. Where a typical textbook in a scientific field is usually primarily filled to the brim with text, allowing room for little pictures and making it difficult to get through, Radioactive does almost the exact opposite. Instead of focusing on every little detail of Curie, Redness chose the most important and concise information to include alongside illustrations on every page. Not only does this cut down on the amount of reading, but it provides visualizations for the audience as they read about Marie’s life and scholarly works in physics. While the book is read, the reader tends to feel more connected to the story, because they can imagine it and not get overwhelmed with the amount of detail. On pages 112–113 in the book, Marie is depicted teaching in front of a group of people. It says “the Sorbonne offered Marie her late husband’s professorship. For the first time in the university’s 650-year history a woman was professor, a bittersweet triumph given the circumstances.” Reading this, the audience knows it’s an amazing feat, even if it comes because of the death of her husband, but the picture that the image paints proves this even more. Marie is shown teaching in front of a group that is almost entirely all men, really driving home how male dominated the field is, but how Curie has been able to break through and be very successful. For being a scholarly text, this piece is immensely intriguing, but also accurate to the subject’s life. There are some downsides to this format, however, and that’s in the lack of information in some areas in comparison to other scholarly texts, and in the lack of public appeal. An accurate image of Marie Curie is depicted, outlining both her work in physics and her personal life, but without there being a lot of text, it can lack details in some areas. But with it being labeled, still, as a scholarly piece, there is a lack of appeal to the general public, as without knowing much about it, it doesn’t seem like something that most people would want to read in their free time.
Another production that works to shed light on scientists who worked behind the scenes is the film Hidden Figures, which depicts women scientists at NASA during the space race. The film walks us through the lives of these three people, who are under-appreciated simply because they are women and they are black. All three of them, Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy, are brilliant and doing extremely important calculation work for NASA, but in segregated America they don’t get the credit at all. Without this film, they may never have been given the opportunity to be appreciated for the incredible work that they did. Being a film, too, this was inherently more popular to the general public, as it was shown in theaters and publicized beforehand. It is scientific in topic, but it isn’t portrayed as something that is difficult to understand. It is cinematic, however, and with that can come some differences between what really happened and what is to be shown in the film. Overall, the film was quite accurate to what really happened, but it downplays a bit of the main characters’ struggles, and also creates a white male hero character that did not exist. Katherine Johnson was pulled into a new unit, where this made up character, a white man named Al Harrison, was now her boss. She struggled with not having a bathroom for black women in the new building she was working in and not being allowed into important areas like the control room. The boss in the film becomes the hero because he allows her into those places and he, in a famous cinematic scene, smashed down the women’s bathroom sign that was designated for white women, and said “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.” But that never happened, obviously, because he didn’t exist. In reality Katherine went into the white women’s bathroom all on her own (Thomas at Vice), which takes a lot of courage, but the film takes that empowering moment away from her and praises a white man for taking care of it for her. In this way, the film was great and allowed a lot of people to learn about these amazing women, but at a bit of a cost to its accuracy.
Both Radioactive and Hidden Figures are important works that educate their audience about women in science who aren’t always talked about. In their own way they bring these stories to life and do their best to captivate the audience. When it comes to accuracy, the written work of Radioactive does a better job. Everything is based in fact and illustrated to represent that. And while it is a lot more of an enjoyable read than most textbooks, it has a harder time exiting that realm of scientists and educators reading it, versus the general public. Hidden Figures, in that regard, has no problem. A film is much more inherently for the public, and even if one isn’t interested in science, they may still be interested in learning about these women. It is portrayed as something that is for anyone, and is accessible in a place that the general public spends time, the movie theater. It loses some of its accuracy, though, because a movie is more focused on being entertaining than being exact with the history. They ended up taking away some of the struggle and empowerment of these women in order to produce something that they felt the audience would want to watch. So where you have accuracy in Radioactive, you have entertainment and audience outreach with Hidden Figures. Both work at something that isn’t done all too often, and that is incorporating artistic ideas with scientific topics. Marina Mcdougall, Bronson Bevan, and Robert Semper discuss this idea in their conference report, Art as a Way of Knowing. They argue how “the arts expand our engagement and understanding of the natural and social worlds,” which is what both an illustrative text and movie aim to get at. By expanding their audience, and making their texts come across in a different way, their topics, in this case women who deserve more credit, gain a larger and more understanding following. Art is something that everyone can understand and enjoy, no matter the topic it covers, and using it invites more people into the mysterious world of science that they typically feel they don’t have a place in (Mcdougall, Bevan, Semper). Overall I think that being scientifically accurate is always beneficial, but expanding audiences and increasing public interaction is also extremely important. Both of these pieces should be examples for more like them to come, and for the scientific community to continue to expand its communication with the general public using art, as well as support people who deserve more recognition like these incredible women.
- Executive Summary (p1–9) from: McDougall, M., Bevan, B., & Semper, R. (2012). Art as a Way of Knowing Conference Report. Exploratorium. https:// www.exploratorium.edu/knowing/reports.html
- Melfi, T. (2017, January 6). Hidden Figures [Biography, Drama, History]. Fox
2000 Pictures, Chernin Entertainment, Levantine Films
- Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures” was whitewashed — But it didn’t have to be.(n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://www.vice.com/en/article/d3xmja/
- Redniss, L. (2015). Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A
Tale of Love and Fallout. Harper Collins