Book: A is for Arsenic
As an aspiring young scientist with an interest in thriller crime movies, tv shows, and novels, I was instantly drawn to “A is for Arsenic, the Poisons of Agatha Christie,” by Kathryn Harkup. The chapter which specifically inspired this exhibit, “C is for Cyanide,” and the incorporation of the poison in the plotline of “Sparkling Cyanide,” instantly sparked my creativity to include elements of symbolism in this art piece.
Cyanide gives off the smell of almonds but is not naturally occurring. Instead, it’s released from amygdalin, found in the stones or pips of peaches, cherries, apples, bitter almonds, apricot kernels, lima beans. It is also found in cigarette smoke, the combustion of plastics, and is most dangerously present in the Cassava plant. When amygdalin enters the body, it reacts with water to form 2-Glucose, benzaldehyde and, hydrogen cyanide (HCN), the deadliest state of the poison. It can appear as a pale blue, colourless liquid, or gas, or in white solid crystalline form as sodium cyanide (NaCN) and potassium cyanide (KCN). Symbolized by the blue water and white mountains.
Potassium and sodium cyanide becomes hydrogen cyanide (HCN) once in the stomach. In large amounts, HCN is absorbed into the bloodstream where it attaches to haemoglobin which contains iron. Both oxygen and cyanide can bind to the iron but, cyanide does so more strongly, displacing the oxygen molecules. Oxygen usually reacts with cytochrome c oxidase enzyme to produce energy for metabolic reactions in the body. But with cyanide in its place, the body loses energy. Resulting in weakness, confusion, loss of breath, dizziness, nausea, passing out, seizures, or cardiac arrest. All this is represented by chaotic smoke, blood and heart.
This exhibit also illustrates the history of cyanide. There was a theory that it was used to poison Grigori Rasputin, but it failed as he would take a small drop every day to gain immunity. Of course, this is not possible – you cannot be immune to cyanide poisoning. It also had a role in the second world war, used by Hitler to poison himself. Hydroxocobalamin, sodium nitrate, and sodium thiosulfate are the only antidotes available and must be administered quickly. Within a matter of minutes, cyanide can take over the body.
This artistic piece does not only represent cyanide, but chemistry as a whole. It depicts the good and bad, the states of matter, its role in history, nature, and humans. It can be complex. But can lead to extraordinary results.
Other references and reading
Emergency.cdc.gov. 2021. CDC | Facts About Cyanide. [online] Available at: <https://emergency.cdc.gov/agent/cyanide/basics/facts.asp> [Accessed 8 April 2021].
Health.ny.gov. 2021. The Facts About Cyanides. [online] Available at: <https://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/emergency/chemical_terrorism/cyanide_general.htm> [Accessed 8 April 2021].
(4) osha.gov. 2021. Cyanide Antidotes. [online] Available at: <https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/standardinterpretations/2020-03-31> [Accessed 10 April 2021].
“A is for Arsenic by Agatha Christie,” by Kathryn Harkup inspired my exhibit because it gave a great insight into how commonly we are exposed to the dangers of science, and how it can be incorporated into a thrilling storyline. This was the main influence to create an exhibit that represented the many aspects of chemistry. Most of the poisons that were discussed, eserine, belladonna, ricin, nicotine, and cyanide to name a few, are found in many foods and plants. This gave me the initiative to include natural components in the art piece.
The chapter “C is for Cyanide,” addressed its conspiring history with Rasputin and Hitler. Given my interest in the crime genre, this was a memorable aspect of the book for me. Which ultimately led to my main chosen theme of cyanide. Before drafting my art piece, I decided to conduct more research on the reactions that occur when amygdalin enters the body, which led to more ideas.
The book gives interesting facts about each toxin. Cyanide can be a white solid, blue liquid, or a colourless gas. The states of matter mentioned inspired the shapes incorporated into the exhibit and the image of white mountains and blue water. The structure of amygdalin how it smells, and where it can be found is also represented in the art piece by fruits, fire, and trees.
The historical element discussed in the chapter is depicted by the illustrations of a clock, Hitler, and Rasputin. But along with the dripping blood, it also symbolizes a negative aspect of chemistry. The symptoms of cyanide and how quickly they can occur in the body is shown through the heart, colourful cloud of smoke, and the clock.
In summary, “A is for Arsenic by Agatha Christie,” by Kathryn Harkup inspired my exhibit because it told a story but also presented interesting information which captured both science and a creative piece of work.