Category Archives: Cool Science

Poisons in Jazz Age New York City

So, I know I already posted my book talk paper that I read over winter break but I just recently started another chemistry based book and thought it’d be a great read for some of you all. I had actually hoped to read this book initially when Jo Ann explained what the book talk book had to be but alas, after searching for my original copy it seemed to have found itself left behind at my ex-boyfriend’s house halfway across the country and so, I set to find a new book which resulted in this paper and book talk.

I had talked to Jill at length about how much I wished I could have that original book back but didn’t want to reach out in order to get it back and so Jill, being a true PIC/BFF and the SpongeBob to my Patrick, got me a new copy for Christmas this year =). The book is called “The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York” by Deborah Blum. Luckily, over break I have been able to start reading it for my third time and have really enjoyed it so far even more than the first two times (I’m only halfway right now). The main reason I think I’m enjoying it so much more this time around is because of how well it demonstrates the nature of science and how being included into the culture of science is seen as a privilege given to very few (when it really isn’t that way). And therefore, here is a halfway-point book talk about a second book!


The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Science in Jazz Age New York

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Science in Jazz Age New York

Title: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

Author: Deborah Blum

Big Idea: Science is tentative and often seen as exclusive of other disciplines


In this book, Blum breaks up the history of poisonings in 1920s New York City into each category of poisons, as they seem to have a rather chronological path through time. The book covers the many poisons including chloroform, wood alcohol, the cyanides, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide, methyl alcohol, radium, ethyl alcohol, and thallium.

Each chapter includes several aspects of the history of poisonings in Jazz Age New York in order to paint a vivid picture of all that happened to make forensic medicine and poisoning the complex yet intriguing spider web that they are today.

First, within each chapter is a historical account of how forensic medicine really got its’ footing in the laboratory and, more importantly, in the court rooms of New York. The chapters start by telling of the corruption within the medical examiner’s office and later on how it gets reversed and forensic medicine makes incredible strides forward by hiring a top pathologist, Dr. Charles Norris, from Bellevue Hospital at the time who went to great lengths to develop newer, more precise, and more sensitive tests to determine how a person had died. The chapters also includes multiple stories showing how a particular poison was used, often in multiple ways, in order to get rid of someone whom the poisoner didn’t want around (for whatever reason). These stories start with explanations of the crime scene, moving towards the story of what Dr. Norris and his team did in the lab to determine cause of death, and ending with the stories from the courtroom of who said what, what the verdict was, and what the (assumed) story of what really happened was. Some chapters include extra ties to things occurring in history at that time, for example the invention of the car, its’ increased popularity, and the ties to the increase in carbon monoxide and tetraethyl lead (TEL) (linked to mercury poisoning) deaths in car and gasoline factories).

Overall, “The Poisoner’s Handbook” tells an incredible, scientific and historical, account of how poisoning changed forensic medicine forever. The stories included within these pages cover multiple viewpoints of history including legal, scientific, historical, political, and technological of Jazz Age New York, which combine to create a colorful painting of what Jazz Age New York looked like, from both sides of the courtroom. People who would enjoy this book include people with scientific interests, people with medical interests, people with legal interests, as well as anyone with a strong sense of curiosity surrounding crime and science. Having a chemistry background would help in your initial understanding of the poisons before Blum discusses them; but, her descriptions of the physiological effects as well as her explanations of why these compounds and elements were so dangerous for human contact mean anyone could enjoy and understand the inner workings of poisoning in the Jazz Age of New York City through reading “The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Science in Jazz Age New York.”

The Science of Freedom

Summer B is here!! It’s astonishing to me that we’ve only been here for six weeks … seven if you count orientation because I already feel so comfortable and connected with our cohort.  I’m sad to see 487 go, but also really excited to see where 486 takes us.  The first project seems like it’s going to be very beneficial, especially for camp and for all of our future classrooms, which is a scary but exhilarating thought considering how fast time is going.  I guess everything is falling in line with a quote another professor of mine recently said to our class, “Don’t save time, lose it.”

Anyway, today’s the fourth of July and a day that I always look forward to in the summer because it means my boat, a beach barbecue, the ocean, and fireworks … usually.  This year, despite my trip home, Hurricane Arthur has laid down the meteorological law and said “no beach, no boats, and no fireworks; I’m going to rain and thunder all day instead.”  So, instead of getting a little sunburnt and watching Long Island’s finest fireworks from the beach I will have to downgrade to some thunder and lightning as my entertainment.


Ever since I can remember I’ve been pretty obsessed trying to figure out how fireworks work and how you make them bigger and cooler than the ones we have right now.  I guess I assumed it was a process rooted in some unattainable science that I would never really understand.  However, I recently found this video explaining the chemistry of fireworks.  It seems surprisingly basic, compared to what I thought it would be like, and relatively straight forward to anyone with an understanding of simple chemistry.

Here’s the video:

Some things I could especially interesting was that the video says the blue is the hardest color to create and requires the perfect chemistry to produce it.  I never really realized but looking back a majority of fireworks are white, yellow, red, or green. I’ve rarely seen blue or purple ones and when I have they always feel more special … but maybe that’s just me.

Some more information I found really interesting, which was when my initial interest in fireworks really started was with regard to their shape.  From what I’ve read, the shape of a firework has everything to do with the arrangement of the pellets within the outer shell; and often has some involvement of multi-break shells.  Simply, the pellets need to be arranged in the shape within the firework shell but then surrounded on the outside with a break charge and on the inside with explosive charges.  These pellets need to be ignited all at the same time to create the intended shape, otherwise it will just look like a big mess.

Some interactive (but basic) firework shapes:

I wanted to leave you all with the best firework video I could find but there are just way too many to choose from, and I’m biased towards New York or Disney World displays. Besides, I’m sure seeing them live will outdo any video I can supply you.




The Chemistry of Fireworks – Reactions. [Video File]. Retrieved from

HowStuffWorks Field Guide to Aerial Fireworks. (2000). Retrieved from

Brain, Marshall.  (30 June 2000). .How Fireworks Work. Retrieved from