I’m delighted to interview Julie Knutson for STEM Tuesday! Julie and I have worked together on three books and each time she impressed me with her super-thorough research and passionate curiosity of whatever topic she was writing about, whether that was globalism, World War I, or Marie Curie!
The Science and Technology of Marie Curie explores Curie’s life and work—not only the discoveries she made while working with her husband that made them both famous, but also the work she continued after his death. For example, did you know Curie developed a transportable X-ray that was used in World War I to help surgeons avoid unnecessary surgery on the battlefield?
Let’s learn more about this amazing woman who made great scientific strides during a time when women weren’t always respected (or funded) as much as their male colleagues.
Andi Diehn: What fascinated you about Marie Curie to write a whole book about her?
Julie Knutson: At the beginning of the research process, I came across personal details about Curie’s life that really drew me into her story. From her attendance at an “underground” Polish university at a time when women were banned from higher education to her embrace of the cycling craze of the 1890s, I came to see Curie as a complex, multi-faceted human with varied interests and commitments. This pushed me to want to learn more about her not simply as a scientist, but also as a person very much of her time and place.
The end result of that research? This book!
AD: Curie was making incredible strides during a time when women weren’t always welcome in the scientific community – why is it important for us to learn about her work and life now?
JK: Curie’s life offers us so many lessons, one of which is the importance of surrounding yourself with people who encourage and foster your interests and talents. Family, friends, mentors, teachers, classmates, her spouse: the “village” around her allowed her to defy the conventions and norms of her time and place. I hope this example encourages young readers to form and join their own networks rooted in shared curiosity!
AD: Your book has lots of activities – why include activities in a nonfiction book for kids?
JK: Observing, questioning, hypothesizing, experimenting, analyzing, drawing conclusions . . . these are the cornerstones of the scientific method. The activities in this book prompt readers to actively practice this process. This builds not only a “lived” understanding of complex topics like atomic structure, but also solid habits of mind that they can carry with them as young scientists.
AD: I was surprised to learn about Curie’s role during World War I. What do you think her work with portable X-ray machines shows us about her character?
JK: One of Curie’s guiding principles was “Science in the Service of Humanity.” Throughout World War I, Curie’s actions reveal her as a person who not just professed this mantra, but really lived it. At the beginning of the war—when Paris was invaded—she secreted a vial of radium from her lab to safety in a town 375 miles away, protecting this critical resource. After suspending her research, she coordinated a fleet of mobile X-ray units, which were used to identify the sites of bullet and shrapnel wounds, as well as broken bones.
Here, we see Curie identify a problem and use her knowledge and skills to solve it . . . in the process, saving countless lives in the process.
AD: If you could share one thing about Marie Curie’s life with everyone you know, what would it be?
JK: There’s so much more — beyond the Nobel Prizes — to learn from Curie’s life and story; I’d encourage readers of all ages to delve into it! She’s a figure of endless depths, who exceeds the honors and accolades for which she’s best known.
***Julie Knutson is an author and educator with a wide-ranging background in history and the social sciences. She holds an undergraduate degree in cultural studies from NYU, a master’s degree in Political Sociology from The London School of Economics, and additional post-graduate degrees in education and art history from Rice University in Houston. Julie’s passion for global citizenship, world history, and human rights stems from these formative academic experiences and from her time as a classroom teacher.
Julie is an active member of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), having served as the Chair of its Middle School Teacher of the Year Award in 2018. She also maintains membership in Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).
Andi Diehn grew up near the ocean chatting with horseshoe crabs and now lives in the mountains surrounded by dogs, cats, lizards, chickens, ducks, moose, deer, and bobcats, some of which help themselves to whatever she manages to grow in the garden. You are most likely to find her reading a book, talking about books, writing a book, or discussing politics with her sons. She has 18 children’s nonfiction books published or forthcoming.