Watching a criminal investigation television show or reading a mystery novel, there are times you wonder how the character jumped to a conclusion. In many cases, it’s science, more specifically chemistry, according to Dr. Tamera Jahnke, dean of the College of Natural and Applied Sciences and professor of chemistry at Missouri State University.
Jahnke and Dr. James O’Brien, emeritus faculty from Missouri State, will compare the science behind two popular mystery series at a free public lecture Nov. 30.
Flavia de Luce: 11 year old scientist
Jahnke has long been interested in promoting the sciences to young women, so she quickly latched onto the Flavia series written by Alan Bradley.
“What hooked me was the first scene in the first book, where essentially Flavia seeks revenge on her two older sisters by concocting a tube of lipstick out of her chemistry lab using poison ivy,” said Jahnke. “She distills the oil from the poison ivy using a steam distillation process that I teach my students here every year.”
It’s elementary, my dear Watson
The mysteries of Sherlock Holmes always fascinated O’Brien, and the science that helped Holmes crack his cases inspired him to write “The Scientific Sherlock Holmes,” which went on to win an Edgar Award in 2013.
O’Brien recommends reading “A Scandal in Bohemia” by Conan Doyle to introduce the reader to Sherlock Holmes. As for identifying great use of science in the stories, he
points to one extraordinary example: “An instance of Holmes being a forensic science innovator is in ‘The Reigate Squires’ published in 1893. Here Holmes uses gunshot residue, or actually the lack of it, to identify the culprit. This usage occurs five years before there is any mention of gunshot residue in the forensic literature.”
Two years ago, O’Brien was the keynote speaker at the Baker Street Irregulars meeting, and last year, the keynote speaker was Alan Bradley, the author of the Flavia series. Then O’Brien asked Jahnke to collaborate on an article delineating the science in each series.
The article was published in the Baker Street Journal.
CNAS Fall Speaker Series
In Sherlock Holmes and Flavia de Luce: Comparing the Science, Jahnke and O’Brien will discuss the findings from their article and:
- Compare Flavia’s understandings of poisons versus Sherlock’s
- Compare Flavia as a chemist versus Sherlock as a chemist
- Compare Flavia as a forensic scientist versus Sherlock as a forensic scientist
“I’ll tell you, she wins two out of the three,” said Jahnke. “Jim knows every story from Sherlock and has thoroughly looked at the chemistry in each one. So I had to dig through the Flavia series to find all of the chemistry, the poisons and all the forensic information. We came to a consensus to who we thought was best in each area.”
This lecture is part of the CNAS fall speaker series at the Library Center, 4653 S. Campbell Ave. It will begin at 7 p.m. Nov. 30 in the auditorium.