Science Poetry

Addressing Challenges

“Quantum numbers disencumber
Orbital descriptions.  
Combinations’ denotations: 
3-D space depictions
From wavefunctions.  Numbers’ junctions 
Address volumes probable.
Useful tools are Q. N. rules,
To name electrons’ ‘domiciles.’”

The 16 September 2019 Twitter poem highlights a useful metaphor for considering atomic orbitals (mathematical functions that describe electron behaviors) in General Chemistry.  Since the actual math describing atomic orbitals will not be seen until higher-level chemistry coursework, it can be challenging to discern the uses and descriptions of these models at the introductory level.  

“Quantum numbers disencumber /
Orbital descriptions.”  
Matter functions differently from our everyday experience at the atomic and subatomic scales: whereas the equations of classical mechanics work well in describing everyday observations, the equations of quantum mechanics are used to describe the particulate-level scale.  Electrons are subatomic particles, and their locations are described in terms of probabilities; rather than the exact path delineated by an “orbit,” an electron’s location is within an “orbital.”  An orbital is described by a combination of quantum numbers (n, l, and ml).  Each number relates to a different aspect of the orbital: combined, they establish its size, shape, and orientation in space.  (A final quantum number, ms, identifies the specific electron within its orbital, via that electron’s spin.)  A combination of quantum numbers specifies an orbital of interest, “disencumber[ing]” its description.   

“Combinations’ denotations: /
3-D space depictions /
From wavefunctions.  Numbers’ junctions /
Address volumes probable.”    
By manipulating the mathematical function associated with an orbital (called a wavefunction), a three-dimensional shape results; this shape represents, with 95% certainty, where an electron will be.  Each specific “3-D space depiction” is denoted by the combination, or “junction,” of the three quantum numbers (n, l, and ml) described above; a common metaphor is an address for an orbital’s “volume probable.”     

“Useful tools are Q. N. rules, /
To name electrons’ ‘domiciles.’”
Quantum numbers and the rules describing them give us a succinct way to identify the “domicile” of an electron: the orbital in which it “resides.”  While such imagery is, of course, not nearly as precise as the mathematics used in advanced coursework to further explore atomic orbitals, this analogy provides an accessible and important step for students in understanding the concept.