Science Poetry

Clashing Symbols

“The marvelous metals are able
To make up quite a lot of the table
That we term periodic:
Collection symbolic 
Wherein lies each element’s label.”  

The 21 October 2019 limerick was written as part of National Chemistry Week 2019. It provides an overview of the periodic table of the elements (PTE), the relative populations of metallic and non-metallic elements on the PTE, and the use of chemical symbols on the PTE.   

“The marvelous metals are able /
To make up quite a lot of the table /
That we term periodic…”
A wide number of chemical properties and principles can be gleaned from an understanding of the periodic table of the elements (PTE).  For instance, metallic character versus non-metallic character can be assessed: the left side of the PTE includes metals, and the right side of the PTE includes non-metals.  Roughly 80% of the elements are metals; they thus “make up quite a lot of the [periodic] table.”  The dividing line between metals and non-metals is often referred to as a “staircase,” given its appearance; the semimetal or metalloid elements are collected in this range of the PTE.  

“Collection symbolic /
Wherein lies each element’s label.”
The periodic table uses chemical symbols as a convenient shorthand for the element names; the label for each element is a one-letter or two-letter symbol. 

Sometimes, these labels are predictable given the name of the element, as with cobalt (Co), for which the symbol is intuitive.  Other times, the labels reflect a name expressed in a different language, as with iron (Fe) and potassium (K); both of these take their abbreviations from the Latin words for the elements (ferrum and kalium, respectively).  The title of this piece alludes to the idea that these instances can seem frustrating and dissonant, as one is learning chemistry; the idea of “metallic symbols” here provides an intriguing play on words with “metallic cymbals.”

As with an introductory approach to any subject, some degree of memorization is inherent and important in learning to use the periodic table efficiently as a disciplinary tool.