Learn about chemicals that can kill you

CorrespondentDecember 20, 2010 

Deborah Blum, 56, teaches journalism at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and has written five science books. Her most recent is "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York" (Penguin Press). She also writes Speakeasy Science ( blogs.plos.org/speakeasyscience) and tweets as @deborahblum. Questions and answers have been edited.

Q: You post about moments at the nexus of science and society that make us change the way we think. How do you pick these "moments"?

I use a Google alert on poisons and search the results for patterns: the way we keep poisoning ourselves with carbon monoxide, the insidious presence of lead in our lives. A lot of these are ideas we've heard before, so I try to find ways to keep them from being blah-blah-another-public-service-announcement.

I wrote one carbon monoxide post into a morality fable about the death of two little girls ("Poison in the Night"). I wrote a lead poisoning post as a slightly whacked letter to the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. We live in such a chemical web, and I want to make people see that, figure out ways to navigate it.

Q: Your most recent book explores the birth of forensic sciences in New York a century or so ago. What will our readers learn from reading "The Poisoner's Handbook"?

Forensics is a really young science.

So in the book, readers really get to watch the invention of a science, the absolutely determined scientists who made that happen, along with the murders and public health hazards and general Prohibition-era craziness that they tackled along the way. Plus, it really is a handbook of poisons - every chapter is about a different lethal substance - you can learn a lot of really cool chemistry and history along the way.

Q: What inspired you to write about early forensics, and why New York?

Well, I knew I wanted to write about poisons. But I also wanted a good narrative story that I could weave them through.

I found that all the good books about history of forensics came from Europe, which led me to ask myself, "But who were the American scientists?" Once I started hunting, I found these two amazing, crusading scientists in New York, and then I knew I had the story.

T. DeLene Beeland: scwriter.db@gmail.com

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