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STEM Education Poetry

Unmitigated Gallium

“This metal in hot tea will fast succumb,
Its melting point readily overcome.
So spoon disappearing
Is chem feat endearing–
A keen fact reported re: gallium.”

This was one of two limericks written for National Chemistry Week 2019 that focused on specific metals; this one was posted on 24 October 2019.  This particular poem referenced gallium via Sam Kean’s entertaining 2011 book about the history of the Periodic Table of the Elements: The Disappearing Spoon.     

“This metal in hot tea will fast succumb, /
Its melting point readily overcome.”
In The Disappearing Spoon, science writer Sam Kean describes a practical joke common to chemists.  A spoon can be fashioned out of pure gallium (“unmitigated” gallium, justifying the pun used in the title!) and served alongside a cup of piping-hot tea.  Gallium’s melting point, at around 86 degrees Fahrenheit (or around 30 degrees Celsius), is “readily overcome” by the tea, and so the spoon quickly melts in this setting. 

“So spoon disappearing /
Is chem feat endearing– /
A keen fact reported re: gallium.”
This phenomenon is well known enough as a popular parlor trick that it became the central image of Kean’s book; it is a “chem feat endearing.”  The structure of this particular poem, in which the riddle of the element is not revealed until the final few syllables, was particularly fun to write, reminding me of the weekly limerick challenges on NPR’s “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me.”  

A common theme in these essays is the challenge inherent in teaching General Chemistry of balancing the fascinating narratives and biographies of science with the content required in a general STEM course.  I thus often find myself alluding to or describing Kean’s book when I introduce the Periodic Table of the Elements, to better acknowledge these many underlying “Science 2” stories.