My father is an entomologist, mostly interested in ants, but who briefly became fascinated by poisonous creatures of the eight-legged variety. For much of one year, we dined in the company of a black widow spider whose Plexiglass-walled home served a centerpiece for the dining room table.
He liked to bring his work home with him. “Look at the way she moves,” he’d exclaim as the spider paced irritably, pushing the salad bowl away to get a closer look. When, as a college student, I moved into my first apartment he brought me me a tarantula as a house-warming present.
I can still see him standing at the door, blue eyes shining, beaming like a slightly demented elf, holding out another of his famous clear plastic boxes- rocks, sand, twigs, and spider. My roommates hovered behind me in a chorus of horror. “She’s not a very poisonous species,” he said encouragingly. “Even if she bit you, it wouldn’t be any worse than a wasp sting.”
The tarantula stayed on our living room bookshelf for two years. Once a week, I’d go down to the insect breeding room at the entomology department to pick up a cricket dinner for my spider. I learned that I hated sticking my arm into a box of crackly, jumping, rustling insects a whole lot more than I minded keeping the tarantula.
I grew to loathe those crickets, in fact. By the time I graduated, I was kind of getting a kick out of watching their demise. “Look at the way she closes in,” I’d say to my roommates. “It’s like one of those Disney nature films.” They’d look at me like I’d turned into a slightly demented elf.
I did not follow in my father’s profession, as he dearly hoped. I did start college with the intention of becoming a chemist. I only lasted a year thanks to my natural tendency toward klutziness. It was the day that I set my hair on fire – think long, dangling 1970s braids, think Bunsen burner – when I decided not become a chemist. Or it might have been the day that I smoked out the entire class due to a certain accident involving toxic fumes that actually I prefer to forget.
Becoming a science journalist made much more sense for me. I could explore research questions that interested me and – theoretically – I wouldn’t endanger anyone’s life doing so. (Although with publication of my most recent book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, many people seem to worry that I’m still risky company.)
But as this blog, Speakeasy Science, will show you, chemistry is still my favorite science – beautiful, fundamental, even occasionally sinister. There will be no toxic fumes rising from my posts – promise – but I may well choose to explore those that occur elsewhere. I’m fascinated by the intersection between science and society, chemistry and culture, and I hope to spend much time here navigating that territory.
I chose the title Speakeasy Science partly because my poison book is set in the 1920s, when those clever, secretive little bars flourished and I wanted to occasionally step back in time and write about science history. Partly because I liked the wordplay of it – I wanted to speak easily about science. I wish we did that more often as a society. And partly because I liked the idea of it being a kind of cocktail-worthy conversation, filled the kind of stories you might tell over a glass.
Like the one about the the pet tarantula, the cricket bodies, and your father’s strange and mysterious work with spider venom. There’s a really good story there, don’t you think? Join me for a drink and I’ll tell it to you.