Science in Popular Culture: Let’s Do the Radium Dance

Today’s post comes to us from the Library’s Danna Bell-Russel.

“The Radium Dance,” 1904

Can science teachers use primary sources? They certainly can.

One approach is to use primary sources to examine how scientific discoveries were treated in popular culture. Here is a series of examples that can be used to discuss radium and its uses in the early 20th Century. The inspiration for this post comes from a piece of sheet music published in 1904 called “The Radium Dance.”

This dance from the Broadway show Piff! Paff! Pouf! was performed by a troupe of dancers skipping to illuminated ropes. Some suggest that it was created to honor Marie Curie and the uses of radium to cure disease.

But radium was used in a number of different products in the early 20th century. Students can read advertisements for toiletries with radium in this February 23rd issue of the New York Tribune and this issue from August of that year.

A search of the historic newspapers on the Library’s Chronicling America project leads to more advertisements for cleaners with radium as well as articles about uses of radium in medicine, concerns about wasting radium and biographies and other articles about Marie Curie.

Here are some ways that teachers might use these materials in classroom activities:

  • In collaboration with music or physical education teachers, have students think about ways that science has influenced music, dance or other fine or performing arts. Some great examples can be found in the Library of Congress lesson plan Natural Disasters: Nature’s Fury.
  • Use the newspapers in Chronicling America to create a timeline of Marie Curie’s life. What was going on during this time that may have spurred Curie and her husband to do the research that led to the discovery of radium?
  • Chronicling America can also be used to investigate why was radium was so popular during the early 20th century.

Are there other substances that were used in products that were in common use during the 20th century that are now either illegal or are viewed as being dangerous? How do you think students might explain these changes?

3 Comments

  1. Mary Alice Anderson
    July 10, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    This topic of science in “popular culture in science” is intriguing and a wonderful example of how primary sources can be used in diverse content areas. Thanks for sharing “The Radium Dance “ as a wonderful example.

  2. Jennifer Harbster
    July 14, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Thank you Danna! As a science librarian, it makes me happy to see the use of primary sources to teach science.
    I must admit when I read this post I had the Pointer Sisters singing the “Neutron Dance” in my head.

  3. Bill Kovarik, PhD
    May 4, 2012 at 10:56 am

    As an historian, I’d like to see more of the story of radium be available through the Library of Congress. Even though there was a dance in 1904, possibly in celebration of Mme Curie, using “illuminated ropes”, there ought to be some link to the scientists and workers who died from radiation poisoning. There should at least be newspaper articles from the 1920s about the “Radium Girls” — the dial painters of New Jersey who died from the effects of radium.

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