Out from the Shadows The Story of Joliot-Curie & Frédéric Joliot-Curie

Out from the Shadows: The Story of Irène Joliot-Curie and Frédéric Joliot-Curie premiered June 2009.

At the Radium InstituteIrène Curie at the Radium Institute, Paris, 1921.
In 1934, Irène Joliot-Curie and her husband Frédéric announced in a report to the French Academy of Sciences that they had created a radioactive atom which did not exist in nature. The bombardment of a simple sheet of aluminum with alpha rays had produced a phosphorus isotope which disintegrated just like natural radioactive elements. Until then radioactivity had been a phenomenon which scientists could not influence or manipulate, but which they were able to observe in certain heavy nuclei. The discovery of the Joliot-Curies marked the beginning of a new era in the relationship of man towards matter: it had become possible to artificially create new atoms and new sources of radioactive radiation.

In her one-hour documentary Out from the Shadows: The Story of Irène Joliot-Curie and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, filmmaker Rosemarie Reed relates the fascinating biographies of the eldest daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie, and her husband Frédéric Joliot. Although less well known than her parents, who had been pioneers of radioactivity, Irène and her husband made a contribution to nuclear physics that was of equally ground-breaking significance. And like her parents, they were awarded a Nobel Prize.

Irene and motherIrène Curie with her mother Marie during World War I, 1915.
Out from the Shadows traces the Joliot-Curies' race for discoveries in an era when research on radioactivity became a matter of intense international competition. But the film also portrays what it means to grow up and cut one's own path in the shadow of extremely famous parents. While her talents were as rare as her educational opportunities, Irène Curie's childhood and youth were also characterized by trials and endurances few young persons are forced to cope with.

Irène's resilience became visible during World War I when she helped her mother run mobile x-ray units behind the frontlines and saw the carnage with her own eyes.The rise of Irène as France's premier nuclear scientist — in this she followed her mother's footsteps once again — took a new turn when she began working with her younger fellow scientist and husband Frédéric Joliot. The two became an exemplary case of fruitful scientific collaboration, turning Paris in the 1930s once again into a mecca of nuclear research. In 1935 their work was crowned by an invitation to Stockholm.

Irene and Frederik at the LabIrène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie in their lab at the Radium Institute, Paris, 1932.
The discovery of artificial radioactivity was also an important step towards the discovery of nuclear fission, made in Germany in 1938, and the development of the atomic bomb, completed in the US in 1944. The Joliot-Curies were aware of the destructive potential of nuclear fission from early on. After World War II had broken out, Frédéric contributed to a risky French sabotage scheme aimed at stalling further German nuclear research. During the occupation of France by Nazi Germany the Joliot-Curies chose life on a dangerous edge by staying in the country. Frédéric in particular became actively involved in resistance activities, joined the Communist party, and narrowly escaped long-term imprisonment or a worse fate.

The catastrophes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused the Joliot-Curies to profoundly question the meaningfulness of their scientific work and intensify their political involvement. They felt that they could no longer be only scientists, but had to assume active duties as concerned citizens as well. The way in which these two socially responsible scientists saught to strike a balance between promoting scientific progress and engaging with the ethical issues connected to it continues to be of relevance in our time.

Out from the Shadows: The Story of Irène Joliot-Curie and Frédéric Joliot-Curie was directed and produced by Rosemarie Reed. Michael Wachholz also served as a producer. The film is narrated by Julianne Moore.

To learn more about women in science, please go to the producer's Web site at http://www.filmsforthought.com/.

More information and a downloadable fact sheet about Out from the Shadows is available at PBS International.


Funded by:

Alfred R Sloan Foundation

Distributed by:

PBS international
Filmakers Library

 Promotions by:

Reisenberg Presents Inc.

Produced by:

Rosemarie Reed Productions
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