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: email@example.com