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.