Science Poetry

In the Cards

“Patiently, spatially, 
D. Mendeleev 
Arranges the elements by column and row. 
Prescriptive, predictive, 
The table finds favor 
In ‘eur-eka’ moments with space apropos.” 

The 8 July 2019 poem was inspired by a call from Chemical and Engineering News for entries to a Periodic Poetry contest in mid-July.  This poem is a different form of light verse than the limericks that began this project; it is likely best characterized as a modification of the “higgledy piggledy,” or “double dactyl.”  It does not adhere particularly well to the actual rules for that poem format, which are quite specific and numerous.  However, the use of a proper name in line two, its theme regarding a historic event, and the metric feet employed are all aspects that align most closely with the double dactyl form.  

“Patiently, spatially, / D. Mendeleev /
Arranges the elements by column and row.” 
In 1869, Dmitri Mendeleev devised the first form of what we recognize today as the modern Periodic Table of the Elements (PTE).  In 2019, several events marked the 150th anniversary of that innovation.  According to some sources, Mendeleev was a card player who particularly enjoyed the game Patience, similar to Solitaire, in which cards are spatially arranged according to both suit and number.  This provided partial inspiration for his innovation regarding the periodic table’s structure: in the modern PTE, the 118 known elements are arranged according to both atomic numbers (rows) and characteristic properties (columns).        

“Prescriptive, predictive, / The table finds favor / 
In ‘eur-eka’ moments with space apropos.” 
Mendeleev took advantage of known chemical data in creating his PTE precursor, fitting elements into a pattern that placed elements into chemical families with similar properties and reactivities; he also left gaps where there wasn’t an obvious candidate to fit in a space.  The table was thus prescriptive, summarizing known information, and predictive, forecasting the properties and reactivities of newly discovered elements that would fill in the gaps.  

Mendeleev named these yet-to-be-discovered elements according to their chemical relatives.  For instance, he left a gap for an element he deemed “eka-aluminum,” with an expected placement one spot below aluminum (the Sanskrit prefix for “one” is “eka”), expecting that an element with certain properties and reactivities would be discovered and would fit there.  When gallium was isolated in 1875, its properties matched Mendeleev’s predictions for eka-aluminum (and, further, provided a “eureka” moment of scientific discovery!).  This and other “space[s] apropos” played a major role in chemists’ adoption of the periodic table.