Wild about thallium, not about head wax

From the short essay “Periodic Craziness“, about Deborah Blum’s probably-unique attempt to get her son to enjoy chemistry:

I say. “Tl, that’s thallium. Incredibly cool poison. Almost perfect if you wanted to kill someone. Except for one thing. Guess what that is?”

Silence. Minor eye roll. My son knows I’m going to tell him anyway. “It makes your hair fall out,” I explain. “Back in the 1930s, they used to put it into depilatory creams, you know, that women used to get rid of their mustaches and all. But pretty soon those women would be sick and then they’d go completely bald.”

“I’ll bet they looked like Coach _______.” This being a reference to a shiny-headed physical education teacher who, according to middle school sources, polished his head with bowling ball wax. “Really! When Coach shook his head people saw little chunks of wax falling onto the floor!”

There’s really no point as a parent in trying to dispute these school mythologies. Plus I don’t actually want to know about the chunks. “Well, I don’t think these poor women put bowling ball wax on their heads,” I say. “And anyway if we don’t focus on learning these elements, you won’t have time to do anything else.” …

For an alternate, and also wonderful, take, see her book The Poisoner’s Handbook.

Improbable Research