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Interview With an Author: Dr. Kathryn Harkup

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Dr. Kathryn Harkup and her latest book, The Secret Lives of Molecules
Author Dr. Kathryn Harkup and her latest book, The Secret Lives of Molecules

Dr. Kathryn Harkup is a former chemist and author. She 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. She writes and gives regular public talks on the disgusting and dangerous side of science.

Kathryn’s first book was the international best-seller A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, which was shortlisted for a Mystery Readers International Macavity Award and a BMA Book Award. She has also explored more of the macabre side of literature in Making the Monster: The Science of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts and Vampirology: The Science of Horror’s Most Famous Fiend. She has also delved into the deadly world of 007 in Superspy Science: Science, Death and Tech in the World of James Bond. Kathryn has also written about her first love, chemistry, in The Secret Lives of the Elements. Her most recent book is a follow-up to her exploration of the elements, The Secret Lives of Molecules and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Secret Lives of Molecules?

The book seemed like an obvious follow-up to another book I had written The Secret Lives of the Elements. After telling the stories of 52 out of the 118 elements in the periodic table, it felt like the next step was to write about what happens when some of these elements get together to make molecules. After all, we rarely encounter elements in their pure form in our day-to-day lives, but molecules make up pretty much everything around us.

What was your process for determining the molecules/materials that would be included in the book?

Some substances were obvious, like water, DNA, or porphyrin, simply because they have had such an impact on this planet. Then there are chemicals that have been particularly important in human development—good and bad—such as aspirin, octane, and DDT. I also wanted to include things that people could readily relate to, like smells and tastes, which led me to think about the other senses. Then there were a few molecules that were just for fun or because I find them particularly interesting. Some of these molecules I found out about from reading. There are relatively few books about molecules that aren’t textbooks. Nevertheless, I soon had a list that was much longer than I needed for the book, so it was a question of eliminating some or choosing alternatives that were less closely related to others I had already chosen.

Did The Secret Lives of Molecules evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? If so, how? Are there any molecules or materials that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

The book did change as I wrote it. Sometimes I would find a better story that related to a particular molecule. I realised there were gaps that I wanted to fill or a better representation of certain types of molecule. I would occasionally realise I was repeating myself or telling a very similar story for two different molecules. And then, I would come across the story of one molecule that was so interesting I had to include it, which meant deciding which other molecule had to be dropped. Although I don’t think there are any molecules I regret not including.

How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write The Secret Lives of Molecules?

I think it was about a year in total—a week for each molecule. Some took longer than others, though. Oddly, it was often the molecules I was more familiar with that were the most difficult to write about because I couldn’t decide what angle to take on them.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you discovered during your research?

Retinal was a completely new discovery for me. I suppose deep down, I knew there had to be a chemical basis for sight, but I had never really thought about it. That there was one molecule that triggered the whole cascade of processes that enabled us to detect light and see the world around us surprised me. The fact that it looked a bit like a light switch was particularly pleasing. That the same molecule is used by virtually every animal that has some kind of vision was incredible.

Do you have a favorite fictional chemist in fiction, comic books, television, or motion pictures? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one, and if that is the case, please don’t. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)

I honestly couldn’t think of any—I had to google. I’m not really familiar with any of them, so don’t think I can answer this question. Sorry.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Empire of Ants by Susanne Foitzik and Olaf Fritsche. It is a lovely book, not just about these amazing creatures but also the trials and tribulations of trying to study them. There are some great anecdotes about leafcutter ants cutting up laboratory equipment in between fascinating details about ant behaviour, biology, and diversity.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science, specifically chemistry? If there was something you could tell someone who might be considering a similar career path (especially young women), what would it be?

For me, chemistry had the right mix of many different things. It was practical but also theoretical. There were rules and systems that appealed to the organised side of my personality, but there was also scope for being creative. And, like many people, I was drawn in by the impressive explosions, flames, and pretty colours that are the stock-in-trade of chemistry demonstration lectures. I would encourage anyone to pursue what they find interesting. Science offers many different career options, not just 9 to 5 in a white lab coat. Chemists don’t just work for pharmaceutical companies or forensics labs, they work in art galleries and Antarctic research stations with test tubes and telescopes.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I don’t know if this counts, but I have started going to life drawing. What I have managed to put on paper couldn’t be classed as art, but I enjoy the process of trying to render a reasonably accurate drawing of a human being. It takes a lot of concentration, observation, and practice, but the whole process is so completely different to anything else I do it feels like a break from the working week. Hopefully, one day, I will be able to draw a foot or a hand that actually looks like a real human foot or hand.

What are you working on now?

I’ve gone back to poisons, and I’m having another delve into the world of Agatha Christie.

Book cover of The secret lives of molecules
The Secret Lives of Molecules
Harkup, Kathryn