Confessions of a chemistry geek

by Rebecca Priestley / 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.
For more details, click here.

Send questions to
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


Women in tech: Why the industry needs to fix its gender problem
71822 2017-04-27 15:48:38Z Technology

Women in tech: Why the industry needs to fix its g…

by Max Towle

Just under one in three IT grads in 2015 were women. But it’s not quite translating to the industry.

Read more
We shouldn't forget immigration is cyclical, too
71818 2017-04-27 15:21:44Z Social issues

We shouldn't forget immigration is cyclical, too

by The Listener

As we debate the “Goldilocks” size of our population, it's timely to remember that only five short years ago NZ was lamenting its net migration loss.

Read more
Who’s the We? Maori, Pakeha and an anthem's bonds of love
71511 2017-04-27 00:00:00Z History

Who’s the We? Maori, Pakeha and an anthem's bonds …

by North & South

'In the bonds of love we meet', goes our anthem. But who's the 'we'? Do modern histories focus too much on a clash between Maori and Pakeha?

Read more
Kaye expects 'healthy debate' over Te Reo in schools
71629 2017-04-27 00:00:00Z Currently

Kaye expects 'healthy debate' over Te Reo in schoo…

by RNZ

Any extension of teaching Te Reo in schools would depend on whether the resources are available for it, the incoming Education Minister says.

Read more
How Arthur Conan Doyle came to create Sherlock Holmes
71313 2017-04-27 00:00:00Z Books

How Arthur Conan Doyle came to create Sherlock Hol…

by Abbie Read

A new book tells how investigative chronicler Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came to create his famous private detective.

Read more
Book review: The Earth Cries Out by Bonnie Etherington
71595 2017-04-27 00:00:00Z Books

Book review: The Earth Cries Out by Bonnie Etherin…

by Paula Morris

A debut novelist finds inspiration in her New Guinea childhood.

Read more
How do New Zealanders rank as philanthropists?
71583 2017-04-27 00:00:00Z Business

How do New Zealanders rank as philanthropists?

by Sally Blundell

Kiwis take little persuasion to give to a good cause, but the demands are ever-growing. How much money gets to where it’s really needed?

Read more