Confessions of a chemistry geek

by The Listener / 21 November, 2013
Through story-telling, Deborah Blum sheds light on the important subject of science.
A cannibal killer who stalked the streets of 1920s New York, a chemist who pioneered the science of forensic toxicology, a psychologist who transformed the way we think about love. Deborah Blum brings science to a wide audience through compelling non-fiction that uses the narrative techniques – character and story – of a good novel.


Blum has won awards for her writing – including a Pulitzer Prize – but for this self-confessed “chemistry geek”, the science always came first.

The daughter of a scientist and a writer, Blum “fell in love with chemistry in high school”. But in university chemistry labs, she says on the phone from the US, “I was a complete physical comedy disaster … they had to evacuate the lab because I generated a poisonous cloud one day, then I set my hair on fire – my braid was right in the Bunsen burner. So I thought to myself, I have to get out of chemistry now, before there’s a serious injury.”

Blum turned to journalism, won a Pulitzer, then began combining science writing – books, blogs and print journalism – with teaching as a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Her most recent book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, was a New York Times bestseller and her e-book Angel Killer is a Kindle bestseller. Blum also inspires budding and established science writers (me included) around the world through her co-edited A Field Guide for Science Writers.

Specialist science writing and science communication are relatively new to the undergraduate curriculum in this country, and Blum is visiting New Zealand at the invitation of Victoria University’s Science Faculty and the International Institute of Modern Letters.

While in Wellington she will lead a workshop for undergraduate creative science writing students, give a masterclass to established writers and scientists, and give a public lecture – “The Poisoner’s Guide to Life” – at the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Science communicators play an important role in society, says Blum. “If you believe that we need to live in a science-literate world, where people understand some important basic concepts – be it vaccinations and herd immunity or the basic chemistry and physics of climate change – then science communicators are really important because some of what we do is essentially post-secondary education.

“It’s not like we’re going to solve every single problem, but I do think we play a part in illuminating issues and in making science accessible so that people can be commonsensical about some of these decisions.”

The blogosphere is an increasingly important space for science writing. Earlier this year, Blum’s blog for Wired, Elemental, was judged one of the year’s 25 best blogs. Blum describes Elemental as “a real classic blog … I’m aggregating information and analysing it, putting it into context”, but Blum sees blogging as becoming more and more journalistic.

“When I write a blog, it’s my opinion. When I write a journalistic piece, it’s many people’s opinions coming around to frame an issue, and I think that is a part of journalism we’d be very foolish to let go.” The paid blog networks, like the Wired blog Blum writes for, “don’t reward people who just shoot off at the mouth; they reward people who do their homework”.

In her next book, Invitation to a Poisonous Dinner, Blum will investigate poisonous food in the early 20th century US. “I’m following one fairly insane scientist. He was a total zealot [who] launches a huge crusade that changes a lot of things about how we actually see food, and so I’m looking at the chemistry of food, poisonous additives to food, fake food – all through the story of this crazy guy.”

THE POISONER’S GUIDE TO LIFE, Wellington, November 28.
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