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Kathryn Harkup - Four Way Interview

Kathryn Harkup is a chemist and author. Kathryn  completed  a doctorate on her favourite chemicals,  phosphines, and went  on to further postdoctoral research before realising that talking,  writing and demonstrating  science appealed a bit more than hours  slaving over a hot fume-hood. For  six years she ran the outreach in  engineering, computing, physics  and maths at the University of Surrey,  which involved writing talks on  science topics that would appeal to  bored teenagers (anything disgusting  or dangerous was usually the most  popular). Kathryn is now a freelance  science communicator delivering  talks and workshops on the quirky side  of science. Her new book is A is for Arsenic: the poisons of Agatha Christie.

Why science?

I was probably one of those annoying kids that were always asking why. I’m still asking. It’s the puzzle-solving aspect of science that I love most. Working things out gives me an enormous sense of satisfaction. Science is a fantastic framework to use when asking questions. Scientists make amazing discoveries because they spot something intriguing or unusual and have the tenacity and systematic approach that often reveals something far more interesting than their initial observation.

There is a great example of how initial curiosity can lead to astonishing science in the discovery of the 'killer bean of Old Calabar.' Missionaries travelling in West Africa in the 1840s witnessed ordeal trials where people accused of serious crimes swallowed beans to determine their guilt. The guilty died and the innocent survived. Intrigued as to how the beans could possible determine guilt or innocence, some of the beans were collected and sent to a toxicologist in Edinburgh, Robert Christison. Initially experimenting on himself Christison, discovered the beans slowed his heart rate. Further investigations found an extract of the beans, physostigmine, (used by Agatha Christie in her novels Curtain and Crooked House) could be used to treat glaucoma, and as an antidote for certain poisons. Another scientist, Otto Loewi, used physostigmine to help determine how nerve signals are passed from one cell to another and was awarded a Nobel Prize in recognition of his work. A whole series of amazing discoveries came about because someone saw something interesting and wanted to know more.

Why this book?

Poisons seem to fascinate many people and Agatha Christie is renowned for her use of poisons in her crime fiction stories, it seemed an obvious match. I had been researching poisons for a while before being given the opportunity to write a book. Christie’s name occasionally popped up in the poison and forensics books I was reading. I had been a fan of her work since I was teenager and so it seemed a great opportunity to learn more about poisons and their history as well as being able to re-read all the Agatha Christie stories.

What impressed me most about the books was how accurate Christie was in her descriptions of poisons and poisoning. Though her work is hugely popular I don’t think many people credit her with the scientific knowledge she incorporated into her writing. I wanted to show that, though her stories may appear deceptively simple, she clearly put in a lot of effort to get her facts right. What may on the face of it appear to be an intriguing puzzle is in fact a very cleverly plotted and well-researched description of poisoning. One toxicologist claimed the descriptions of thallium poisoning in her 1961 novel The Pale Horse as 'the most reliable outside of a specialist textbook.'

What’s exciting you at the moment?

I find that I am more and more interested in the history of science. How discoveries were made and what lead scientists to investigate certain phenomena and this has only increased after researching A is for Arsenic. After spending a lot of time researching how certain compounds kill, I am now looking into how science might be able to bring you back. I’m reading a lot about body snatchers, or resurrectionists as they were known, in the early 19th century. There are some fascinating stories about experiments with electricity that tried to reanimate dead bodies. It sounds very grim and the even at the time many people were horrified by what these scientists did. Many questioned whether these really were scientific experiments or some gruesome form of entertainment. At the time scientists thought they were close to being able to resurrect the dead or create life and, though this still isn’t possible, our understanding of life and death has increased enormously over the last century.

These early experiments have eventually led to a better understanding of how the body works as well as medical devices such as pace makers and defibrillators which save lives. What I love is how seemingly bizarre and, on the face of it, gratuitously disgusting public displays of science have led to major scientific developments that no one at the time could have foreseen.

What’s next?

I’m looking forward to doing lots of talks about poisons and Agatha. I’ve been doing poison talks for a few years now and the audience questions are always great. People are also really enthusiastic about the book so I’m going to have a busy few months going to lots of exciting events like Bloody Scotland, the British Science Festival and the Agatha Christie Festival. I get to meet great audiences, lots of interesting new people and talk science in some lovely parts of the UK. It’s going to be a great autumn.

Beyond that? Who knows? There is a whole world of interesting things to find out more about. I have no problem finding things to interest me. Whatever I end up doing I'm sure it will be based in science and trying to share my enthusiasm for an incredibly varied and interesting subject.

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