In It’s Elemental: The Hidden Chemistry in Everything (Park Row, July.), Biberdorf explains the vital role chemistry plays in daily life.
You’ve been a science educator and children’s book author for a while. What led you to write this book?
I’ve been doing Kate the Chemist—where I travel across the country and blow stuff up for kids to make science fun, exciting, and entertaining—for three or four years. At the end of my shows, I always get kids running up with questions, but I started to notice that parents were coming up, too. They were saying, “Little Bobby has a question about electromagnetic radiation,” and I was like, really, little Bobby does? Or maybe you do? I’d start having conversations with the adults about the hidden chemistry of our everyday lives, and started making notes of all their questions. Over time, I compiled them into this book, which is a love letter to anyone who’s been intimidated by science to show how you’re interacting with it all day, every day.
What was most difficult about translating your approach to science education from kids to adults?
I had two different versions of explaining things. There’s the in-person presenter, Kate the Chemist, who’s lively, quick-witted, and uses short sentences; I’m going more for the explosions there. But in text, I tend to switch over to the professor, where I want to write a lab report or my dissertation again. I had a challenging time in the beginning—how could I convert this lab report into something that an average person would want to read? I hit upon the book’s format, where the first part is Chemistry 101—what’s a molecule, what’s a chemical change—and the second part is where I show how that chemistry shows up in our everyday lives.
Were there examples of how chemistry is implicated in the everyday that you weren’t able to include?
Apart from things cut because of length, like the chemistry of Diet Coke, there are some things that have more political aspects that aren’t in there. I tried to stay away from Covid, from vaccines. I was writing this at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, and we just didn’t know enough yet, things were so new. My next book will go into controversial science—that’s who I am. I like talking about vaccines and why they work. For this, I tried to stay away from anything like that and keep it lighthearted. No matter who you are, what your socioeconomic status is, what your political side is, I wanted nothing here that would bother you.