Science Poetry

What’s in a Name

One C, two C:
Entitled natures.
Methane, ethane:
Name conventions 
Relay alkanes’
Size dimensions.

Another Twitter poem from 2 March 2020 was the second of three poems written in honor of Dr. Seuss Day.  Unlike the first, which had mimicked the style of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” in discussing Lewis structures (electron dot structures), the second echoed the staccato notes of “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” to provide an overview of organic chemistry nomenclature: how organic molecules are named.  

“One C, two C: /
Nomenclature! /
Molecules’ /
Entitled natures.”
Instead of “One fish, two fish,” this poem starts out with “One C, two C.”  The verse will look at two simple molecules, the first containing one carbon atom (“one C”) and the second containing two carbon atoms (“two C”).  Nomenclature involves naming (i.e., “entitling”) rules for molecules.        

This poem and the third Seuss homage (which will be posted in the next entry and uses a similar structure), were among the most difficult to compose of all these Twitter poems.  Each line is very brief, consisting of two trochaic feet; each syllable has to be carefully chosen.  This provides an intriguing analogue to the principles of chemical nomenclature, where every part of a compound’s name communicates a great deal of information.  

“Methane, ethane: /
Name conventions / 
Relay alkanes’ /
Size dimensions.”
Alkane” is an organic chemist’s shorthand for a “saturated hydrocarbon”: a compound that contains only carbon and hydrogen atoms; it has single bonds only and thus the maximum number of hydrogen atoms bonded to carbon atoms.  This type of compound is denoted with the suffix “ane.”    

Methane is the alkane with only one carbon atom, corresponding to the first compound named in the first line of the poem; ethane is the alkane with two carbon atoms, corresponding to the second compound named.  Knowing what is meant by the “name conventions” also tells a chemist how many carbon atoms are in the carbon chain of a given alkane; the names “relay [the] size dimensions” of the compounds. (The title here borrows a line from yet another poet, reinforcing the fact that the depth of information available in a chemical compound’s name is considerable.)