Deborah Blum

Speakeasy Science

Tag archives for Deborah Blum

How to Mix a Heart-Stopping Salad

One evening,  in the early summer of 2008, a Colorado sheriff’s deputy named Jonathan Allen came home to find that his wife had made him a “special” dinner. Waiting on the table was his favorite spicy spaghetti dish and a big leafy bowl of salad. As he told investigators later, the salad was surprisingly bitter.…

Like the shining dawn

The chemical symbol for the metallic element gold is Au, taken from the Latin word aurum meaning ‘shining dawn’. In the Periodic Table of Elements it occupies a companionable neighborhood of other metals, tucked neatly between platinum (Pt) and mercury (Hg). But as origin of its chemical symbol indicates, we’ve long found difficult to be…

A Golden Fairy Tale

In 16th century France, there lived a king with a beautiful and somewhat mysterious mistress.  Diane de Poitiers was almost 20 years older than Henri II but she looked like one of his contemporaries. She had skin of a near porcelain white and auburn hair as fine as silk thread. Famed for her intellect as…

The Blue Man Mystery

In an earlier post, I wrote about the possible copper poisoning of the great British poet and artist William Blake. The very simple lesson inherent in that story is that a strong dose of metals on a regular basis is generally bad for a person’s health. But one could argue that this is too simple…

Remembering mustard gas

Last week, the U.S. Army announced that its excavation old chemical munitions dump – unfortunately located in one of Washington D.C.’s more elegant neighborhoods – had turned up remnants of two of the ugliest weapons developed in World War I. By which I mean compounds used in the production of mustard gas and the arsenic-laced…

Digging up our chemical past

In the forensic laboratories of the 1920s, a chemist checking for poison could make a beaker glow with the brilliance of a gemstone.  Color tests, as they were called, derived from the fact that many toxic materials turn a specific hue if exposed to the right mixture of heat, cold, acid and base. The results…

What lies below

Recently, at events for my book, I sometimes find myself describing the gas carbon monoxide as a favorite poison. “It’s just so efficient,” I’ll joke. “And I like things that work.” In an academic sense, I do respectfully admire carbon monoxide’s simplicity (a carbon atom + an oxygen atom) and the way such basic chemical…

Firedamp

The old mining term for explosive gases in coal mines is “firedamp”. It seems illogical – I mean, a damp fire? – until you realize that it comes from the German word “dampf” for vapors. There are other “damps” in mining terminology – “afterdamp”, for instance, refers to the poisonous gas carbon monoxide, which tends…

The Methane Calculation

Almost 200 years ago, methane gas ignited in a coal mine in England, setting off an explosion that killed 92 miners. These were not miners as we think of them today – in the pre-child-labor-law world almost half were children, as young as eight years old. So that one can make an argument – regarding…

The moonshine murderer

A few days ago, I wrote about the lessons I’d learned while a young journalist in North Georgia on how to safely drink illegal alcohol (Moonshine Days). Probably because I had moonshine on my mind, I ended sharing stories about it with family and friends during a recent visit to the state. Just to let…