Speakeasy Science

Chemistry confessions

I’ve just started my book tour  for The Poisoner’s Handbook and people seem to be wondering  why I (a friendly mother-of-two) am so fascinated by poisons. I admit to a fascination with murder mysteries (count on me later in this blog to write about Agatha Christie). I share my affection for forensic dramas on television. I talk about the thrill of discovering two forgotten and quite heroic forensic scientists from jazz-age New York.

And then I confess that I love chemistry – the most beautiful, the most fundamental,  and on occasion the most sinister of all sciences – and that I even planned to become a chemist until that unfortunate moment when I set my hair on fire in a Bunsen burner.

Okay, it was just the end of a braid.

But still. I was hovering over a test-tube with all the dedication of Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth, practically muttering incantations: Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

The beleaguered graduate student overseeing the laboratory was named Frank. He had already herded the class outside after I spilled a toxic solution onto a heated asbestos pad causing a plume of acrid fumes to unfurl across the room. He had vibrated nervously behind me as I weighed minute crystalline specks on a delicately balanced, multi-thousand dollar scale. I tended to imagine my parents taking out a second-mortgage to replace it.

At this moment, he was completely calm. His voice had the relaxed tone of man asking for a little more catsup for his french fries.

“Do you smell smoke?” he asked me. I looked down. The trailing end of my braid was glowing a gorgeous copper red as it trailed in the hot shimmer of the Bunsen burner.

He closed a hand around the smolder and put it out. He never said another word about it. But I’ve always imagined that the day that quarter ended and I walked permanently out of the laboratory – and my chemistry career – he celebrated like a madman.

Chemistry labs are really not an ideal home for absent-minded dreamers like myself. I loved chemistry (I’d even embroidered an atomic orbital patch for my blue-jeans) but I was sure that I was going to kill myself and possibly several innocent others if I stayed the course.

So instead I became a nice safe science writer. But with this book, I get to prove that I’m not entirely tame. I get to remind people of chemistry’s amazing and lethal possibilities. And I get to thank Frank for deciding that I was – after all -  worth saving.


  1. #1 Hugh Pickens
    March 1, 2010

    I posted a story on slashdot this weekend based on your article in slate about the poisonings during prohibition. The story is on the web at:


    The story has received 600 comments already. I thought you might be interested in seeing what people are saying about your research.

    Best regards,

    Hugh Pickens

  2. #2 admin
    March 2, 2010

    This is terrific! Thanks so much.

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