Speakeasy Science

The second post I wrote for this blog was partly to explain the title:

“Why Speakeasy Science? Well, first because I just wrote a book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, which is set in Jazz-Age New York, which was home to some 30,000 speakeasies. Also I like the historical feel of the name. I’ve always been interested in the intersection of science and culture and I find moments in history, where those two forces pull at each other, to be wonderfully illuminating. Speakeasy itself appeals to my sense of word play – I like the idea of speaking easily about science. And finally – some science stories are so good that they can even light up a bar conversation.”

But, of course, I also gave it a subtitle “a blog about culture and chemistry” which has allowed me to not only write about historical poisonings – the mysterious illness of William Blake in the 19th century, the death by gold overdose of Diane de Portiers in the 16th century – but to explore chemistry in today’s culture as well. For the past few weeks, that’s meant exploring the chemistry of an oil spill, the dismaying toxicity of chemical dispersants, the easily debunked-claims about underwater oil plumes made by BP head Tony Hayward.

But today I decided to treat myself to something more fun. Yes, it’s all about me – although not to the Hayward-like extent of going on national television to complain that I wanted my old life back.

No, I just thought it would be fun to run a giveaway, similar to one I did earlier to promote National Poison Prevention Week.

So, I’m going to give away five free copies of the audiobook of The Poisoner’s Handbook (worth $35 each!). All you have to do to enter the giveaway is post a comment to this blog suggesting an idea – about chemistry and culture – or just a good story. On Monday, I’ll pick my five favorite ideas – yes, this is totally subjective – and if you’re a winner, I’ll contact you directly for shipping directions.

Just to let you know, this will be the last such giveaway because I’ll have run through my store of audiobooks.

But I’d be delighted to hear your ideas. Send as many as you like. I’ll look forward to reading them. Even if they’re about oil spills.

Comments

  1. #1 Jacquelyn Gill
    June 3, 2010

    What about food poisoning/scurvy/metal poisoning as hypotheses for causes of the deaths of the Franklin expedition?

    Or pharmaceuticals that get flushed out into our water supplies?

  2. #2 cicely
    June 3, 2010

    The history of the use of lead (and/or other toxic substances) in cosmetics. Or maybe the side effects on scribes of toxic substances in the pigments used in illumination.

  3. #3 Navin
    June 3, 2010

    I suggest an examination of the countless snake oil cures marketed with the quack-y promise of removing “toxins” from the body, detoxification regimens and the like. They play on the public’s ignorance of chemistry. What else is new, right?

  4. #4 Tracy
    June 3, 2010

    The chemistry of absinthe

  5. #5 matt
    June 3, 2010

    Can anyone really build up an immunity to a poison, say Iocane powder?

  6. #6 Mike
    June 3, 2010

    Why are lilies, and some other plants of the same family, so toxic to just cats?

  7. #7 DVMKurmes
    June 3, 2010

    I have to second the “detox” supplement industry. Ironically, many of these supplements are contaminated with lead, arsenic and other toxins. Cats are interesting-probably because they are strict carnivores and eat very little plant material, they have much lower levels of some liver enzymes such as glucuronosyltransferase that humans, dogs, and other animals use to metabolize phytochemicals and things like acetaminophen. (just finished the book, and really enjoyed it!)

  8. #8 Lowell
    June 3, 2010

    As a high school teacher, I’d love a Speakeasy post about the impossibility of living a “chemical-free” life. I think it’s time that we all realize EVERYTHING around us is made of chemicals.

  9. #9 JessE
    June 3, 2010

    What about organic food? How are the chemicals/processes used in the growing of organic food different from currently used pesticides in terms of their environmental effects and physiological impact on humans? What’s the story behind the campaign/funding to support both sides?

    Or, maybe how the degradation of plastics (for example) is affecting so many aspects of our environment and health.

  10. #10 dean
    June 3, 2010

    Fluoride. How it benefits dentition. How and when those benefits were discovered. The chemistry of adding it to the water supply. I’ve been interested in this since I lived in San Antonio in the 1990s when they did not fluoridate their water system. My son took fluoride tablets when we lived there because there it wasn’t in the water supply. There was a vocal anti-fluoride movement that never failed to entertain on the evening news. They successfully kept fluoride out of the San Antonio water system until 2002. They did untold harm to thousands of people through their actions, much like the anti-vaccination crowd does today. Surprisingly there are still quite a few fluoride holdouts around the country. It seems like a fertile topic for exploring chemistry’s interface with culture.

  11. #11 Art
    June 3, 2010

    Nitrogen chemistry —> fertilizer/ explosives. European demographics patterns, making relatively infertile northern European areas productive —> Growth of population, prosperity, industrialization which both necessitated and allowed warfare to gain more land.

  12. #12 Ruth
    June 3, 2010

    Advertising.

    I’ve an interesting and charmingly horrifying book called ‘Secret Remedies, what they cost and what they contain’ published by the British Medical Association in (I think) 1939.

    What fascinates me about it isn’t so much the con & quack cures, but the advertising for them. Shorn of their ‘antiquated’ turn of phrase, many of their claims are remarkably similar to what you see on the shelves today (if more carefully phrased to get around modern legal liabilities!)

    It almost seemed some kind of law that the fancier the label and grandiose the claims, the less likely it was to actually work, except – things that actually worked had to compete to catch the eye of shoppers as well. Today, its more a case of quoting lots of studies, getting in the news, and catching the eyes of doctors (or whoever the buyers listen to).

    So, just how does the (mythical) average and ordinary buyer decide what advertising can be trusted, and what can’t?

  13. #13 JessE
    June 4, 2010

    The global nature of the marketplace — and every aspect of production — and how this is affecting the potential for harmful chemicals to make their way into our pharmaceuticals and foods. From tainted pet food to poisonou cough syrups to chemicals in our processed foods, the many geographically distant steps of production and practice of shipping products from port to port in unmarked containers make it nearly impossible to know what’s in your food.

  14. #14 Mercutio Jones
    June 4, 2010

    I would be interested in hearing about the history of either of two things. Either enrichment of flour, or a timeline of when people began being concerned about industrial waste. Both could be fun to examine.

    I am pretty sure the enrichment of flour started during FDR’s presidency. I know the aim was to fight pellagra and beriberi. But I’m sure there’s more to the story than that.

    The first US air pollution law was somewhere around the 1830s, I think. But I don’t know anything about liquid or solid hazardous waste as a concern until the 20th century. I am sure concerns go back farther.

  15. #15 Bob
    June 4, 2010

    There seems to be hundreds of newly invented chemicals, the toxic effects (or otherwise) of which are investigated on a one at a time basis. I’m interested (more as a potential inadvertent poisonee than as a would be poisoner) in the possible harmful effects of combinations, at “safe” individual levels, of two or more of these things.

  16. #16 JPop
    June 4, 2010

    Fashions in perceptions of food chemistry, and how they relate to flawed or improving public understanding of chemistry.
    The trend for ‘atomic’ or ‘full of natural radiation’ ads in the 50s, before radiation became feared.
    The current trend for ‘organic’ food (because sometimes tomatoes aren’t organic? And some times salt is? ‘Organic Rock Salt’ is possibly my favourite weird label).
    Why fertilisers and pesticides are feared, and why they are used in high density agriculture.
    Artificial chemical preservatives are currently unpopular, but on their introduction lead to huge improvements in distances of food delivery and the variety of food people could access.

  17. #17 KenM
    June 4, 2010

    I don’t know too much about the topic, but as part of ancient Chinese folk religious/medical searches for immortality, a lot of people were taking a lot of very, very toxic things. If I remember my history right, taking high doses of mercury in order to become immortal is probably what killed the first Qin emperor.

  18. #18 k8
    June 4, 2010

    Mine’s kinda personal, but there’s a particular strain of brain cancer that appears to be striking – with alarming frequency – men between the ages of 40-50 in Austin, MN. And they all die from it. I’m convinced it has something to do with the packing plant there. But so far, I’ve not seen any research on it. NONE. I don’t get that.

  19. #19 Scicurious
    June 4, 2010

    The chemistry of chemotherapy and how it has changed the lives of people with cancer and their families.

  20. #20 daedalus4u
    June 4, 2010

    How about endocrine disruption and via non-acute effects of pollutants. My schtick is NO/NOx physiology due to commensal ammonia oxidizing bacteria. Some things inhibit them at very low levels (i.e. alkylbenzene sulfonate detergents inhibit them at ppm levels and also things like atrazine and nitrapyrin (nitrification inhibitor)).

    A related question is what is the mechanism by which antibiotics in animal feed cause accelerated growth, sooner maturity, increases body size and increases efficiency of conversion of feed to animal biomass. The mechanism is still unknown (I think it relates to the bacteria I am working with). Low NO causes hyperandrogenic effects by disinhibiting the enzyme that makes testosterone. High androgens then cause growth of pubic hair, expanding the niche for the bacteria I am working with.

    Effects of indiscriminate use of anti-microbial soaps on human commensal bacteria and antibiotic resistance of pathogenic bacteria.

  21. #21 adrienne10
    June 4, 2010

    The common idea that chemistry is something that was done in the past and only good currently for pharmaceutical R&D. Seems like I’ve heard “chemists already have that figured out” quite a bit, and often it isn’t true, whatever “that” being referred to. But there is a lot of non-drug R&D research out there in all the various fields of chemistry that is really neat in terms of basic science and applied science. For examples, look at recently funded NSF grants under chemistry topics. But, culturally, it seems that chemistry is an old, dried up field – like the perception of the chemists themselves.

  22. #22 Die Zauberflotist
    June 4, 2010

    Is it safe to drink out of the hose? Is there any toxicity or contagion danger of using a turkey baster as a nasal douche?

  23. #23 NJS
    June 5, 2010

    k8: What strain? My dad was diagnosed with a very rare type of brain cancer in January. He’s 51.

    Adding to Scicurious: Perhaps addressing how different chemo drugs act differently and why they’re more effective for a certain type of cancer.

    Other thoughts on chemistry-related topics:
    *how acute and long-term stress affect memory and health
    *how a mother’s nutrition is related to the chemical makeup of breast milk – As the adult diet has changed, how has infant nutrition changed? Is breast milk less healthy than it used to be?
    *skin moisturizers – What ingredients most effectively moisturize the skin?
    *history and uses of heparin – Every time my dad has a blood drawn for a lab, the lab tech calls a nurse over for a heparin flush. What does it do and where does it come from?
    *microwaving in plastic – My dad always gets on me about this. At what point can it be harmful?
    *electrolyte or water poisoning
    *making donuts – because I’ve wanted one all day
    *why being sleepy, cold, and hungry seem to go hand in hand – I am all three right now. I think I’ll have a snack and snuggle into my bed. Goodnight!

  24. #24 Richard Harper
    June 5, 2010

    Chemistry and culture? Jared Diamond has written grand narratives about how biological resources have influenced historical development. Why not chemistry? There are the dye-makers of the ancient world, but also a lot of information more readily available for the last few hundred years. There are many ways to narrow this down. You could even just make it a popular treatment of the history of bleach, or since salt also contains chloride, a history of chloride. (Note that bleach is used on a lot of our food today, as well as for water purification — a big problem in much of the world.)

  25. #25 Bob Cisneros
    June 5, 2010

    Why not chronicle of use of drugs such as Valium (a benzodiazepine)……from medicinal use to casual, recreational use?

  26. #26 TexasSkeptic
    June 6, 2010

    Niacin & pellagra

  27. #27 Sarah
    June 6, 2010

    The frozen addicts! The very slight differences between MPTP and MPPP, and the contributions of this case to research on Parkinson’s disease. I thought that story was SO cool/creepy when I heard it from my O-chem teacher.

  28. #28 brook
    June 6, 2010

    How knowledge of chemistry moved from being a norm (the oxygen parties of the late 18th early 19th century, novels often mentioning making “stinks”) to an unknown feared entity. How does a chemist work in a ketchup factory for example. Or a bench tech help make sure baby formula is safe.

    Thanks!

  29. #29 Meghan Byrne
    June 6, 2010

    What about alchemy? Seems like there’s lots of good stories there, and probably also some people who still think it’s possible.

  30. #30 kirsten
    June 6, 2010

    I was kind of interested in Deadalus4u’s observation that the presence of certain bacteria can alter the toxicity of certain substances. This can be related to human culture by showing how fermentation of foodstuffs can make them edible as opposed to poisonous (cassava), preserve food (kimchee, sauerkraut, and pickles) or overcome a food intolerance (yogurt). Unique fermented foods seem to exist in almost every culture on Earth.

  31. #31 DHDoughty
    June 7, 2010

    Chemistry and Culture…. Hmmmm.

    There are a lot of great stories that many of us in the science community know, such as synthetic rubber, nylon, new medicines, new alloys, etc. They often start off to aid a nation’s military effort but later influence a nation’s commercial status and economy. There might be interesting stories on how the transition was made for specific technologies and who drove it.

  32. #32 distance
    October 11, 2010

    As a high school teacher, I’d love a Speakeasy post about the impossibility of living a “chemical-free” life. I think it’s time that we all realize EVERYTHING around us is made of chemicals.

    distance between cities

  33. #33 SesliSohbet
    October 13, 2010

    There might be interesting stories on how the transition was made for specific technologies and who drove it.

  34. #34 Deborah Blum
    October 14, 2010

    I did write one recently on my personal blog and I’ll put it up here shortly.

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