History · Nonfiction · Science

The Poisoner’s Handbook

by: Deborah Blum

I, most awkwardly, read this book on a plane.  I don’t know if you’ve ever wandered around an airport with The Poisoner’s Handbook in your hand, but I kept on expecting to get funny looks.

Anyway, had I received any dirty looks, this book would’ve been well worth it.  It’s a science history book, extremely engaging and fun to read.  Blum writes of the founding of forensic science in New York during the Roaring Twenties.  The stars of our tale are Alexander Gettler and Charles Norman, a chemist/toxicologist and the chief medical examiner of the New York coronary office.  They’re the ones who took forensic medicine in the USA and made it a useable and respected science.  Getter developed many early techniques used to detect poisons and Norman made possible the structure, funding, and organization necessary to turn a coroner’s office into a place of science and investigation. 

Blum does an excellent job of mixing personality, history, and science.  There’s enough character development to keep the reader liking and interested in the characters, especially Norman, but not enough to make it feel like a novel.  I didn’t want to put it down, actually, even exhausted and on an airplane at dawn’s first light.  Blum is a good writer and the book informs and delights without ever feeling dry or tedious.  

It’s equal parts science and history.  The science is basic and well-developed and -explained, spaced well throughout the book so you’re never overwhelmed with information (a pet peeve of mine.)  It is, of course, a lot of chemistry – poisons! – both of the chemical natures themselves and the methods used to elucidate knowledge.   The methods were not explained in detail, which is actually good as chemistry methods tend to be insanely complicated, but they’re sketched over well enough that the reader understands what they do.  The chemical themselves are explained very well, structure and all.  I wish there had been illustrations of the chemical compounds throughout the book – as good as the written descriptions were, I think that any discussion of chemicals necessitates a drawn structure.  

The chapters are arranged by poisons – arsenic, methyl alcohol, carbon monoxide, ect., – and the science is sprinkled throughout.  Throughout what? Throughout history.  Though the chapters are called by poison names, they’re also arranged chronologically as forensic medicine and poison-detecting techniques are developed.  Murder cases and sociological factors, especially Prohibition, are discussed.  Politics and law, insofar as they intersect with science, were discussed as well.  Surprisingly, everything felt equally well discussed, with nuances presented and clear facts given.  I don’t know much about politic or legal history, so I can’t say as to Blum’s accuracy and grasp of the situation, but her presentation felt fair and was full of interesting facts.  Also, her science was well-researched enough that I’m willing to believe her history was too.  

Looking back, I realize the Gettler and Norris, rather than being the stars, are the backbone of the story.  Blum keeps on coming back to them, from tangents about murder cases, accidental deaths, and the occasional legal or social issue.  I really enjoyed hearing about how new detection methods were developed – Gettler’s dedication to finding even the smallest amounts of poison is borderline crazy but wonderful to read about.  

A warning, though! Dead bodies and ground up tissue abound in this book so if you’re squeamish, I’d give it a pass (or read with a bucket nearby, ’cause this book is really awesome and worth reading!) 

If you’re looking for a science book to read that’s not hard-core science and is a real-life example of how science impacts society, definitely pick up this book.  If you’re looking for a history book with a unique perspective on the early 20th century, you should read this book!  If you’re looking for something with extreme in-depth analysis of history or an extremely technical read, than this may not be the book for you.  


Science · Science Fiction

Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation


by: Olivia Judson

This is one of the awesome books I have been reading and talking about in my blog lately.  I am completely and totally in love with this book. It’s 16 kinds of fantastic.

It’s a book, of course, about the evolutionary biology of sex – that is, Judson talks about all the weird and wacky ways that animals reproduce and why scientists think they act like they do.  The format of the book is a huge part of why it’s so amazing –  animals, like fish, mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians, write in with their sex-related questions and problems.  And she answers, going off on tangents to explore concepts or similar practices in other animals.  It’s glorious.

Every question and answer is only  a few pages long, making the information easily digestible. Judson does an excellent job of defining science terminology in layman’s terms.  She also – and this is just absolutely superb of her – introduces terms and concepts as they’re relevant, rather than doing a huge info dump at the beginning of the book.  I hate huge info dumps – a lot of science concepts are kind of complicated and people need time to digest them once they’re introduced.  Even if someone picks up the information easily, the terminology is often new and weird and multisyllabic, so introducing a word and allowing the reader to learn it before introducing another new word is a much better tactic than presenting what amounts to a vocabulary list at the beginning of the book.  (I have Strong Feelings about this, guys. Very. Strong. Feelings.)

Anyway, Judson’s presentation of information is smooth and, er, whelming.  It’s generally just enough new information to make the reader feel like they’re learning something new and cool but not enough to make the reader feel lost or unable to keep up.  (Well.  Full disclosure: I am a science person working in the sciences.  So please let me know, readers, if you feel differently!) She’s honest and open throughout – when something is not known, she says so and then proceeds to discuss competing theories that are thought to explain it, noting which theory she most agrees with.

Her vocabulary is quite good, which I don’t know if I liked or disliked.  I liked her precision with words, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like she could have stuck to a more common vernacular since she was already using an extensive scientific vocabulary, which many of her readers were presumably already unfamiliar with.  The tone of the book was light and interesting but sometimes the vocabulary was fighting against the tone. It’s from 2000, so I can safely assume relevant discoveries in the field have been made since then, so some of the gaps in knowledge may have been filled since publication.

Okay.  Now that that’s all out of the way – this book is just fun.  Creatures are weird and they do weird things! It’s fascinating!  I just wanted to quote this book over and over and over – preferably with no context, because the quotes are much more startling that way.  I often found myself laughing at the sheer silliness of animals everywhere.  (There’s an ocean-dwelling species where the female is 200,000x bigger then the male!)

You don’t have to like biology to like this book – it’s not heavy or technical and it doesn’t feel like something you’d read to “improve” yourself.  Rather, it’s wacky facts of animal sex presented with style and wit by Judson.

Judson covers topics like monogamy (everybody cheats), females vs. males (it’s not she-wants-commitment,-he-wants-freedom!), incest (a species gotta do what a species gotta do, y’all), asexualism, homosexuality, sex (like gender here) (also there are species that have more than 2 sexes, which I didn’t know), and so much more.  It’s all in animals – there are no political discussions here – and all based on evidence and research and just really cool information. (I think this information is also important to developing thoughts on some hot-button issues, because people often trying to justify their stances by incorrectly evoking evolutionary biology.   This, however, is not something the author pushes.)

This book is fantastic and I love it!  I would recommend it to anyone who likes nature or animals, or who is interested in sex, or who wants to read something science-y that isn’t scary – this is a great book!  If you have a serious dislike of rodents, if there’s an animal that grosses you out, or if the thought of bugs mating makes you gag a little, than alas and alack!, this may not be the book for you.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by: Rebecca Skloot


I just read this book – I know it’s been a big hit for the last two years and I really like science books, but I was a bit wary of reading this book. Not for any particular reason, I suppose, just that it seemed more about people than science and I was worried that it would be inaccurate scientifically. Which bugs me. Also, I had seen the BBC film documentary mentioned in this book as part of my cancer seminar my freshman year and so was familiar with the story and the ethical questions entailed. Anyway, on the recommendation of one of the Ph.d’s at my work I picked it up and finally read it.

This book is, at its core, about Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Her cells were taken without her knowledge or consent and became the first human cells that lived outside of the human body. They are known as HeLa cells and continue to be one of the most important tools scientist have for understanding the human body and disease. Her family, however, didn’t know of these cells’ existence until decades after they had been cultured and, at the time this book was released, still lived in poverty.

I found it a really quick read, but I didn’t struggle with understanding the science parts – which were blessedly accurate as far as I could tell. The author didn’t try to get too detailed or seemed like she was showing off her understanding of science. Rather, she tried to present a clear understanding of what was necessary to understand how important HeLa cells are to science and why. (Also, it’s not essential to the story that one has a perfect or even very good understanding of the science, so don’t be scared by it if you haven’t read it!)

I understand why the critics are raving about this book. It’s extremely good. It tells a very important story in a very human way. The author is honest and comes across as very unbiased, which can’t have been easy to do. The people in it, especially Deborah, are presented with backstory and history so that it becomes possible to understand them as complex people who are products of their times and circumstances. Her account is factual and has little to do with her own emotional impressions; the people are allowed to speak for themselves through actions and quotes that she strove to keep as accurate as possible. She does a good job of presenting both sciences’ side of the story (common practices of the time, the need to have samples from sick patients in order to do research) and the patients’ side of the story (lack of consent and understanding of what has happened, lack of benefit from the procedures).

It’s also important to note that Henrietta Lacks’ story is one of the most important stories in science and deserves to be told somewhere other than a sidebar in a biology textbook. And it should be told to someone other than science students. Skloot has enough skill and grace to tell this story, which has so many elements of unethical medical practices, racism, and poverty that a less skilled author might have butchered it or been unable to humanize it – making it more about the bad stuff than the people it happened to. Skloot makes sure this book is first and foremost a story about the Lacks family and it is a more powerful story because of it. You should read this book.