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Movers And Shakers

C&EN Talks With Andy Brunning

U.K. chemistry teacher and author of the blog Compound Interest hazards a guess at why he’s skyrocketed to fame online

by Lauren K. Wolf
July 7, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 27

Infographic showing Andy Brunning’s chemical makeup. His eyes have retinal, his skin has keratin, and his shirt’s got cotton and polyester.
Credit: Compound Interest

Until recently, Andy Brunning used a pseudonym for all his online dealings. Fans knew him as the mastermind behind the blog Compound Interest and by the Twitter persona @­compoundchem. Unsure that anyone would be interested in the blog when he launched it in December 2013, the 25-year-old chemistry teacher had decided against using his real name. “I didn’t want my students Googling me only to find me posting into nothingness on the Internet,” he says.

Since then, however, the infographics Brunning creates for Compound Interest have become wildly popular. Describing topics such as “What Compounds Cause Garlic Breath?” and “The Chemicals Behind the ‘New Car Smell,’ ” the illustrations have been picked up by the Daily Mail and the Guardian. His graphic about the molecules that give bacon its wonderful aroma even appeared on a segment of NBC’s “Today” Show. With a book deal now under his belt, Brunning, who instructs 11- to 18-year-olds at Bournemouth School in southern England, is stepping out from behind the pseudonym and now identifies himself on his blog. He sat down with C&EN to discuss his meteoric rise to chemical stardom.

Your blog has really taken off. Did you just sit down one day and think, “Seems like a good day to make some chemistry infographics and share them online”?

It was my first year at Bournemouth. The lab I teach in there is a little old—the displays probably haven’t been updated for a fair while. At the start of the school year, I decided to produce a few posters that would make the room a bit more colorful and have a variety of engaging information about chemistry for the pupils. I started off making ones with groups of periodic table elements, and when I showed them to friends of mine who are teachers, they quite liked them and wanted copies. I started the blog because I thought it would be easiest to put the posters on a website for download.

And the idea mushroomed from there?

After seeing that the elements posters were quite successful, I decided to convert some blog posts I’d written on the chemistry of everyday things—food in particular—into graphics too. I make them all primarily for Compound Interest, but I also put some up as posters in the classroom. At this point, I’ve made so many, I’m running out of wall space.

Your infographics look professional. Do you have a graphic design background?

I took a graphics course during school, but generally speaking, I enjoy learning stuff, so I tend to teach myself how to do things. I taught myself how to use a desktop publishing program to make the infographics. I also had a phase where I was learning to edit photos. And I taught myself Hungarian.

Of course you did. Why wouldn’t you learn Hungarian?

(Laughs) I had heard it was one of the more difficult languages to learn. My girlfriend’s Hungarian, so I’m quite often going to Hungary to visit. At this point, I get by—I can order a beer.

So you’re jet-setting to Hungary, you’re a full-time chemistry teacher, and you’ve created at least 70 infographics since your blog launched. When do you sleep?

I try to keep my schoolwork confined to school, although obviously there are times when I have to bring some home. But the graphics are something I do for fun—I don’t see them as work. What I’ll often do when I get home from school is I’ll sit down and work on graphics for an hour or so before relaxing for the evening.

I know it’s like asking you to pick a favorite child, but do you have a favorite infographic on your site?

There are quite a few I like, but one of them is “The Chemical Elements of a Smartphone.” It’s interesting to think that you’ve got so many different elements from the periodic table present in something you carry around with you every day. (Indium, tin, and oxygen make up a phone’s electrically conductive touch screen, for instance.)

Interest in your blog has exploded over such a short period. Why do you think your infographics resonate with people?

With the posts I put up on the site, I always try to frame them with some kind of hook to draw people in. For the food graphics, rather than it just being, “Let’s look at the chemical composition of this food,” it’ll be something like, “Why does garlic make your breath smell?” It’s important to relate topics to everyday experiences. The visual aspect is also important. I don’t think the graphics would be as successful if they were just a bunch of text without images. The aesthetic can have a big impact on whether people will, for example, share something online.

Do your students share your infographics on social media?

I haven’t really told them about the website. I’ve got a poster up in the classroom about flame tests for metals. Recently, I was doing a lesson on flame tests, and I had put some of the little icons from the poster on my lecture slides. One student turns around and says, “Sir, you’ve stolen that off the poster.” (Laughs) I’m sure they’ll figure it out eventually.

You’ve got a deal with Orion Publishing to write a book with the tentative title “The Curious Chemistry of Food and Drink.” When it releases next May, how will you celebrate?

The deal came about because of my food chemistry infographics. One or two of my friends want to throw a book publishing party next year. I’ve already got some chemistry shot glasses shaped like conical flasks and beakers. I’ll have to invest in some more chemistry-themed partyware. I also get some free copies of the book when it comes out. I’m thinking of stashing one in the school library. We’ll see whether my students ever find it.  


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