Radium Girls

Just the other day on twitter I had a sudden inspiration to post about one of my favorite science writers. She is right up there with Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics (and that’s the book that helped me make it through my physics degree!). Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook.

I already run around waving my arms and telling everyone I pass how awesome this book is, so I thought, why not run around all over my blog waving my internet-arms and typing frantically “This book is so AWESOME! Read it!”

Proof of awesomeness (in my opinion): I hate chemistry. I have disliked it since I had to take Chemistry in 10th grade. And when I had to take it again in college, I dragged myself through one in spring semester and skipped right along into the second requirement during the summer session (since this summer class was notoriously known for taking up much less time and I didn’t have Quantum Mechanics to distract me). And I was done forever!!! Until I heard about Deborah Blum’s books.

At first, I didn’t know they were largely chemistry inspired. I was lured in by the title “The Poisoner’s Handbook.” Even back in middle school I had a strange interest in poisons.  My parents probably won’t realize until they read this that I actually spent a good week checking out internet sites about poisons while I considered it for a science fair project (instead I went with the fantastical Van de Graaf generator).

Little did I know what I was in for. A book I largely went into believing was one thing turned out to be something even better. I learned more from Blum’s book about history and chemistry than I think I did in my whole first semester of basic college Chemistry. (Chem 1 was mostly spent mourning the 10 sec. introduction of Schroedinger’s equation to the overhead which was then quickly wiped away with a statement, ‘But that’s too advanced for us…’ and back to balancing…)

You see, Blum has written more than a book packed with information. This book is a journey. It is a story of characters, real characters who lived during the Prohibition. Somehow she has included the intimate details of multiple characters while still maintaining a movement of the main storyline and tying them all back in together AND while weaving throughout complex topics of major breakthroughs in chemistry for both illegal actions and the forensics which found them out. I will forever be impressed with this method of writing nonfiction and aim to achieve it if I ever write a book on historical science. Maybe it will be about astronomer’s in Chile during the political upheavals of the Coup D’etat. A mentor told me a tiny bit about his experiences about how helping to build and run a major observatory (CTIO) during a major government turnover is no small feat.

I was honored to meet Deborah Blum at the Science Writers conference in Flagstaff, AZ. I will never forget how kind she was to me. She even paused to write the sweetest autograph into “The Poisoner’s Handbook” for me. She wrote,

To AJ,
Can’t wait till you sign your book for me! Here’s to next time we get together!
Best, Deborah Blum 

What an inspiration.

Here’s to Deborah Blum! Thanks for the great book, all the fantastic historical and chemistry knowledge, bringing a story of such passion to light, and being a truly great writer and role model.

Click the picture to see more about
radium girls

Radium Girl

My smile glowed to show my promise,
my silence, my pinky swear, my crossed

heart and swear to die for our shimmering
secret. Always coy, demure, and ladylike

beyond these penny and a half per dial.
I blazed. Potential for a lover.

Now I rest, dimming in the corner,
missing my shining smile, full lips.

Deborah Blum and me at the Science Writers Conference.

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