Science Poetry

Charted Waters

Water, water everywhere– 
A molecule abounding; 
Through Gen Chem, common starting point
For studies most compounding.  
Likewise, survey the lit’rature 
For role in tale familiar
With aqueous variety:
Some insights are distilled there.  

In the third of this month’s weekly essays, this poem’s first line echoes a phrase from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1834 work The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Coleridge was a Romantic poet who collaborated with chemist Humphry Davy to learn about science, using Davy’s public demonstrations to enhance Coleridge’s “stock of metaphors.”  (Another of my favorite Coleridge quotes, perhaps for another time, is his statement: “I shall attack Chemistry– like a shark.”)    

Unlike the last two essays, this post will not build directly on the theme of the referenced quote; instead, I’ve borrowed the memorable line to note water’s prevalence in contexts related to chemistry.

Water, water everywhere– /
A molecule abounding; /
Through Gen Chem, common starting point /
For studies most compounding. 

When I teach General Chemistry, water is typically my “example” molecule.  It is much more familiar to students than many other chemical species in terms of its molecular formula (H2O) and structure (the shape of a letter V), its physical phases (ice, liquid water, and steam), and its real-world behaviors (heating and cooling; phase changes such as freezing and boiling).

Since we often begin with water and build to less familiar chemical species, water is a “common starting point/ [f]or studies most compounding,” to use a perpetual chemical pun.   

Likewise, survey the lit’rature /
For role in tale familiar /

With aqueous variety…

This specific poem arises from the fact that a moment involving water (“aqueous variety”) in the plot of a novel that I read in elementary school (“tale familiar”) has had some interesting resonances in the decades since, in my educational path.

When I was a student learning chemistry, I often was distracted by where scientific definitions and symbols came from, before I could focus on the actual use of these precise terms to communicate regarding calculations and experimental findings. (Why was heat energy abbreviated with the letter Q? Why was R used for the gas constant? Neither seemed to make sense!)

As I progressed in my chemistry career, I gradually became aware of how these terms and notations accumulated over time via consensus in the scientific literature, and I try to at least address these verbal genealogies in passing, when I am teaching. (With the two cases cited above, for instance, these can be remembered a bit more easily when tracing them to terms expressing the quantity of heat energy and the ratio inherent in the gas constant, respectively.)

Sometimes, these etymologies are very compelling! The scientific disputes and disagreements that arise in defining a new chemical species or theory can be significant and rancorous, as scientists seek to find concurrence on these “strange terms for strange things.”

As I started learning more about such debates, I was strongly reminded of an excellent book I’d read long ago: Natalie Babbitt’s The Search for Delicious. The plot focuses on a kingdom wherein the Prime Minister is drafting a new dictionary. As he arrives at the words beginning with D, he realizes that no one agrees with him on the definition of “delicious,” because each person brings their own favorite food into consideration when defining said word. The disagreement among the citizens of the kingdom becomes more and more acrimonious until, as the story culminates on a hot summer day, everyone realizes that they can indeed agree on the definition of “delicious”: “a drink of cool water when you’re very, very thirsty.” Order is happily restored (at least until the Prime Minister reaches the letter G, and the malleable definition of “golden,” in the closing chapter…).

The pace at which the book’s definitional controversy quickly moves from seemingly trivial to massively contentious came to mind when I learned much later about some of the fascinating stories of the history of science (although rarely was accord achieved so neatly as in Babbitt’s novel!). It’s intriguing to note how water plays a central role in that memorable plotline, as well, and reflecting on that gave rise to this verse.

Some insights are distilled there.  

The poem winds down with another pun, building on the concept of distillation in laboratory and literary settings. Most chemistry textbooks do not discuss the “behind-the-scenes” narratives through which the definitions and discoveries outlined in their pages are derived, and these stories can often be particularly vivid.