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Kathryn Harkup - Five 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 The Secret Lives of Molecules.

Why chemistry?

My interest in chemistry comes from a combination of a great teacher, a fascination with fire, explosions and pretty colours, and a love of finding things out. For me, the science is a great mix of big theories and practical experimentation. I love learning and I also love making things. Chemistry has rules and systems of organisation that appeal to the methodical and organised side of my personality, but practical chemistry is also an art and a skill. It is a subject that has enormous potential for creativity, spectacle and surprises. The products of this science can be intellectual oddities with no obvious use, and others can have rapid and direct impact on everyday lives. Like all the other sciences, chemisty has its share of interesting characters who have contributed to the advancement of the discipline, as well as fascinating stories.

Why this book?

The Secret Lives of Molecules was a natural followup to The Secret Lives of the Elements. I thoroughly enjoyed getting reacquainted with members of the periodic table for the first book, but chemistry is much more about how those elements interact with each other and combine forces to become something greater than the sum of their parts. I didn't want to write a textbook explaining the nuts and bolts of chemical interactions - there are plenty of those already. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of any subject is finding out how it fits in with everything else. I wanted to put some of these molecules into a context. For example, retinal is not a particularly interesting molecule in terms of the atoms it is made of or how they are arranged, but without it we, and many other animals on the planet, couldn't see. A rather ordinary molecule can have an extraordinary role simply because it happens to do something very well, such as change shape when a photon of light hits it. It was great fun finding new ways to present familiar substances and researching molecules I had never heard of before but that play an important part in our lives. Most importantly, I just wanted to tell some interesting stories.

There seem to be fewer popular chemistry books than any other aspect of science. Why do you think this is?

Physics and biology have within them some very visually impressive and relatable topics - space science or zoology - or they encompass big ideas such as gravity or evolution. There are plenty of aspects of both these subjects that rarely get written about in popular science books. I think chemistry can be a tough subject to grasp because the majority of it is not easily relatable. Appreciating how atoms and molecules too small to be seen by the naked eye can be manipulated and built up into all the different things around us is a huge conceptual leap. Chemistry books can very quickly get bogged down in minutiae that is difficult or tedious to follow - I hope I have avoided this.

What’s next?

I hope more chemistry. Writing The Secret Lives has made me remember why I enjoyed chemistry in the first place, thinking about atoms, molecules and their interactions. I love figuring out why chemicals can have the effects they do, be that in a global scale, such as with ozone, or the very personal, such as with hormones. It might be time to go back to finding out about poisons, those chemicals that in tiny amounts can have particularly dramatic effects.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

At the moment I am finding out about ants by reading a lovely book, Empire of Ants. It covers the science of these creatures as well as anecdotes of researching them in far flung parts of the globe and the problems of transporting them and studying them in the lab. I'm thoroughly enjoying it.


 

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