Connecting with Chemistry – A conversation with Andy Brunning of Compound Interest

October 22, 2019
Ideas That MatterJulia Winter


What is it?

Compound Interest is a website on which I make a variety of posters and infographics where I show different facets of everyday chemistry. Highlighting say the chemistry of different foods and chemical compounds or looking at current events and looking at the chemistry behind that. So, it covers a whole host of topics. With this year being the International Year of the Periodic Table (#IYPT2019), I am doing a graphic for every single element along with the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Compound Interest vs Compound Chem?

When I was setting up the website (Compound Interest) I thought I would get loads of hits looking for information on the economics of compound interest if it was, so I decided to go with, which is probably where the confusion between the two names arises!

How did it come to be?

I originally started when I was teaching students from the ages of 11 to 18, which is quite a wide range. So Compound Interest was started to provide the contextual links to the chemistry that students were studying and helping them see connections to the everyday things they encountered. I eventually got to the point where I had way too many graphics displayed and there was not enough classroom space. The website came out of that and sort of grew a life of its own and became a second thing that I was doing along side teaching.

The Nobel Prize 2019 graphic – did you have an idea beforehand?

In the case of the prize this year, I was actually quite lucky, I had done a previous graphic on lithium and lithium ion batteries for Chemical and Engineering News  a few years back to explain exploding batteries. So I had some general graphics already done. I was also pleased that the lithium ion batteries had won it because it’s a really nice kind of everyday application of chemistry which people use on a daily basis. I have tried over the years to do graphics on the individual Nobel prizes on the day they are announced, which now with a five-month-old baby at home is not quite as straightforward as it used to be.

What’s your process?

I have a to-do list app on my phone where I keep a list of things that I could do a graphic on. I also have ideas from people who have emailed me and requested graphics. Also, I go with things that are going on in my life. Lately, there have been lots of baby-related posts, and one on pregnancy tests, and then one on how nappies (diapers) work, which I still haven’t finished. And then someone wanted me to do one on baby poop!

What are the favorites among your readers?

The big favorites are things that focus on colorful chemistry. Among the most popular ones are looking at the chemistry of the color of fireworks, which has a seasonal aspect as well. The autumn leaves graphic is pretty popular year on year. These kinds of overarching big phenomena that everyone experience, I guess it is something that people find an unexpected connection with chemistry that they had not necessarily though about before. The best sellers on our RedBubble site is about fireworks and flame colors. There’s also one that I made near to the start of the website which was a rough guide to how to spot bad science –that’s also popular. Educational graphics like amino acids and functional groups are good sellers, too.

What have you learned?

Obviously, I have learned a ton about graphic design, but also a whole host of different things about chemistry that I didn’t know because in the course of learning chemistry, you may learn theories, but you don’t necessarily learn the contextual-based things. I have learned a little bit about a lot which is quite nice. It’s enough to have a useful offhand chemistry fact about most things to entertain people depending on your disposition.

What’s next for chemistry?

Part of what I do is really try to communicate the things that chemistry has already done for us. It’s delivered advances in terms of supporting the world’s population with fertilizers, and different medicines have been produced by chemistry. Also, various things that we take for granted,like contraception pills that chemistry has contributed to. People do not realize the huge role that chemistry has played.

Currently, we have a situation where chemistry’s reputation isn’t as bolstered as that of the other sciences. You have the big faces of physics and the connection people generally feel with biology, and that connection isn’t there so much with chemistry. People don’t really get what it is about chemistry that they can connect to on an everyday level, so changing that perspective can lead to support for advancing new ideas going forward, such as improving batteries and devising new sources of power.

The important part is to connect with the chemistry – that’s the goal of the website.

Co- Author