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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 Making the Monster: the science behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Why science?

I know I'm biased but science really is the best. It is an incredibly powerful tool for trying to make sense of the universe around us. The more time I spend learning about science and reading about it, the more amazing it becomes. Writing books is a great excuse for reading books about brilliant science and scientists.

Reading about scientific discoveries from two hundred years ago made me realise not just how far we have come but just how brilliant previous experimenters were. The acheivements they made, with relatively simple equipment and no concept of things like energy or atoms, is staggering. 

Why this book?

Although the scientific aspects of Frankenstein only make up a small proportion of the whole novel, it's the bit that got me thinking. The book is credited as being the first science fiction novel and much science fiction has an unnerving scientific credibility to it. I wondered how close the science in Frankenstein came to the science, and scientific expectations, of the time it was written. I was also fascinated how a nineteen-year-old woman came up with such a concept. Mary Shelley had no formal education and was living in time when women were almost completely barred from participating in practical science (there were a few notable exceptions). I wanted to know just how well informed she was and where she could have got her inspiration from. 

What's next?

Now I am researching another book. There will be plenty more science, and it's still a macabre topic, but it's even further back in history than Frankenstein. This time I'm going to be looking into the science of all the different ways to die in Shakespeare's plays. It's going to be lots of gory fun.

Not only do I get to investigate new (to me)  areas of science but I get to find out a lot more about British history, a subject I gave up very early on in my school career. I love the crossover between science and other subjects, for me it makes it all the more interesting.

What's exciting you at the moment?

It's great to see so much in the news about Frankenstein and Mary Shelley. She was an extraordinary woman living at an extraordinary time. I'm looking forward to talking about her life and work while I promote the book. 

I am also relishing taking on a new challenge and immersing myself in researching the Plantagenets and the plague. I am loving watching Shakespeare's plays and calling it 'work'.


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