Little acknowledged, but
Polyglot field stems from
All this inherent in
Intro chem class.
This was a verse I wrote last October, during a series of “pseudo-double-dactyl” Twitter poems (which I’ll likely revisit in essays later in 2021, given the iterative nature of this website). The October poems followed the general rhythm of such verses but did not meet all the qualifications of true double dactyls. This provided an apt metaphor for the Fall 2020 semester: technically, a familiar structure… but lacking some key details!
I never posted this particular verse on Twitter; it addresses a theme I note often to myself in teaching General Chemistry and have discussed to an extent in this space, but at the same time, it didn’t stand on its own as easily as others.
As I’ve explored the overlap of chemistry and poetry more intentionally in the past few years, I’ve found many fascinating discussions. For instance, Isaac Asimov’s 1976 collection of chemistry essays, Asimov on Chemistry, includes a chapter on chemical nomenclature that also invokes poetic verse. That chapter addresses many of the same themes, in more thorough detail than this brief entry will achieve, and it provided a good excuse to revisit this non-Twitter poem.
Chemistry’s narratives: /
Little acknowledged, but /
Polyglot field stems from /
The first four lines address topics I’ve considered before in this space; the stories underlying science and my frustration with the short shrift I tend to give these wonderful stories in teaching content-dense chemistry courses. Chemistry is a “polyglot field” with an “ancestry vast”: part of why it is so challenging to learn chemical nomenclature and concepts is that many of the terms we use arise from multiple languages throughout history.
All this inherent in
Intro chem class.
As noted in an earlier post, element names and other chemical terms come from a variety of sources, reflecting a wide range of complicated etymologies from throughout history, across disciplines, and around the globe. All of this information is “inherent”– rarely directly acknowledged– in introductory chemistry coursework.
I had not realized until recently that Isaac Asimov’s formal academic training was in chemistry and biochemistry and that much of his popular non-fiction writing introduces chemical concepts to a general audience. Asimov’s nomenclature-themed essay, “You, Too, Can Speak Gaelic,” was originally published in 1963 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; it has since been anthologized in a few collections, including Asimov on Chemistry. It is interesting to consider how he reframed the complicated rules of chemical nomenclature.
Asimov notes at the start of his essay, “It is difficult to prove… that one is a chemist.” He highlights many of the skills that a chemist does NOT automatically have: identifying compounds or explaining how they work, merely by their appearance. He contrasts these with one “superpower” that every chemist DOES have: “speak[ing] the language fluently.”
In the bulk of the essay, Asimov considers a common organic compound, para-dimethylaminobenzaldehyde, and dissects the name of that compound back to its roots, one step at a time, essentially completing an etymological retrosynthesis. The essay’s title comes from the overall rhythm of the chemical compound’s name, which consists of several “drumming dactylic feet” that remind him of the rhythm of an Irish jig. (This allusion to meter reminded me of the poem at the start of this piece in the first place, given its own dactylic rhythm.)
Asimov takes each piece of the compound’s name in turn, starting with the “benz” root, which comes from a description of a resin derived from Javanese incense, known for its characteristic aroma, as described by Arabic traders (luban javi). Asimov follows this phrase through multiple subsequent translations and languages; in English, the resin’s name ultimately became gum benzoin, a precursor from which benzoic acid can be isolated; benzoic acid can then be reduced to a hydrocarbon-only compound, benzene, which is the central piece of this molecule. (I appreciate the allusion to the aroma of the original compound: perhaps another chemical jargon mystery unlocked for some readers, in passing. Further, while I’ll mainly summarize this portion of the essay, one direct, rueful quote from Asimov is particularly illustrative: “You will have noted, perhaps, that in the long and tortuous pathway from the island of Java to the molecule of benzene, the letters of the island have been completely lost. There is not a j, not an a, and not a v, in the word benzene. Nevertheless, we’ve arrived somewhere.”)
Asimov continues to dissect each piece of the compound’s name. The “aldehyde” functional group descriptor is a contraction of “alcohol dehydrogenatus,” a name originally given to acetaldehyde (CH3CHO), based on its relation to ethyl alcohol (CH3CH2OH), then generalized to the functional group. The etymology of “ethyl alcohol” requires another several hundred words to fully explain, but its bifurcated derivation leads to both ancient Greek (“ethyl,” as a prefix related to “aether”) and Arabic (“alcohol,” from “al kuhl”) origins. The name for the “amino” group comes from a Roman term for a compound used by ancient Egyptians (salt of Ammon; sal ammoniac; ammonium chloride). “Methyl” refers to a carbon atom bonded to three hydrogen atoms, a group originally found on methyl alcohol; this functionality was first observed in what was termed by chemists as “wood alcohol,” based on the words “methy” (wine) and “hyle” (wood), from Greek. “Di” in this context means that two methyl substituents are present in a characteristic pattern on the amino group. The “para” prefix describes the relationship of the “dimethylamino” relative to the “aldehyde” on the benzene ring; the Greek prefix para means “beside” or “side by side.” In terms of the ring’s hexagonal shape, the 1-position and 4-position at which the amino and aldehydic substituents are placed are “side by side”: they are directly across from one another on the benzene ring. Finally, the overall structure of the name reflects a Germanic naming tradition, as the different roots and prefixes combine into one long compound word to depict this specific chemical compound. (Asimov queries, jestingly, at the close of his essay: “Isn’t it simple?”)
Chemical nomenclature can be a daunting topic, and it is particularly interesting how Asimov uses the dactylic foot as an accessible entry point and thematic focus, throughout this piece. The focus on pronunciation first (and acknowledgement of the challenge presented therein!) draws the reader in to the etymological discussion, providing a direct look at chemistry’s “ancestry vast.”
As with the “Cubes, Dots and Eights” essay by Kooser and Factor, which I’ve written about previously, Asimov’s chapter is one I am surprised I’ve missed for this long and will be glad to share with students in the future. I appreciate that these creative writing efforts in the past years have also facilitated more “creative reading”– seeking out chemistry discussions in sources beyond textbooks and journal articles alone.