Categories
Science Poetry

Painstaking Attention

Near 1920,
STEM questions aplenty.
Scientists seek for the sun in the sky
A chemical make-up.  

To do this, they take up
Their spectroscopes, which will allow them to spy
At the atomic
Scale, info re: cosmos,
Deduced from a pattern of typical lines.  
Each element will show
Fingerprint pattern, so
From scope’s results, find the source of sun’s shine.  

Opinion popular
For data ocular:
Iron composes the overhead sun.  

“Ihron?” “Yes, irhon.”
“Iht’s chlearly juhst ironh;
Whe loohked aht khey lhines frohm hour spechtroscope’s rhun!”     

Enter Payne, student,
First viewed as imprudent
For noting the excess of H in these lines.  
“Hydrogen fits
Pattern known.  It’s 
The likeliest culprit– not iron– for these spectral signs.”  

Solved, central mystery?  
Payne’s place in history
Set by the finding?  Two obvious “Yesses”?  

No!  The reception
Is cold; no exceptions.  
Some years will pass, ‘ere both are deemed as successes.  

Hydrogen’s place in the
Realms of astronomy,
Now well-established: identity main
As stars’ key constituent.  

No more diminuent 
Should be her story: Cecilia Payne.  

***

As with last week’s essay, this is a longer poem that tells one of my favorite stories from scientific history.  Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was an astronomer who lived from 1900-1979, and one of her stories is wonderfully told in David Bodanis’s phenomenal book E=mc2, the prose of which inspired this particular poem.  Despite studying science for all of my post-college academic path, it was not until my teaching career that I encountered Payne’s name (thanks to Bodanis’s book).  

Near 1920,
STEM questions aplenty.
Scientists seek for the sun in the sky
A chemical make-up.  

Cecilia Payne pursued her doctoral degree at Harvard in the early 1920s, during a time when the theory of quantum mechanics was overturning scientists’ understanding of matter and energy.  “STEM questions aplenty” were thus under investigation in various labs and universities.   One such question involved the chemical composition of the sun (which elements were present?).

To do this, they take up
Their spectroscopes, which will allow them to spy
At the atomic
Scale, info re: cosmos,
Deduced from a pattern of typical lines.  
Each element will show
Fingerprint pattern, so
From scope’s results, find the source of sun’s shine.  

Several experiments around this time revolutionized scientists’ understanding of the quantum behavior of matter.  One key instrument was the spectroscope; Robert Bunsen (of “Bunsen burner” fame) and Gustav Kirchoff had shown a few decades earlier how it could be used to explore the line spectrum of a given element. 

Spectroscopes reveal the particular wavelengths (and thus energies) of light absorbed or emitted by an element; the “lines” of line spectra refer to the wavelengths in question at which they are seen.  These data in turn rely on the electronic structure of each element: its number and arrangement of electrons.   

When I teach the topic of line spectra in General Chemistry, we look at the hydrogen atom’s line spectrum in detail.  Any time a sample of hydrogen is caused to emit (release) energy, the four lines in the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum (the colors we can see with our own eyes, rather than light that requires using a laboratory  instrument) will be at the same four wavelengths: 410 nanometers, or nm (violet), 434 nm (blue), 486 nm (indigo), and 656 nm (red).  (In teaching, I contrast this quantization with the “continuous” spectrum of white light, the ROYGBIV rainbow,  so we have a sense of why these findings would’ve been so unusual to scientists at the turn of the twentieth century.)  Each element behaves differently, so that a characteristic line spectrum becomes a fingerprint for the element in question, just as these four lines are the fingerprint for hydrogen.  

For the scientists who were interested in understanding the sun’s chemical makeup and behavior, observing the sun through a spectroscope would reveal a particular line pattern and thus the elements involved: the “source of sun’s shine.”  They were interested in the spectroscopic behavior of the elements that were causing this astronomical behavior: “at the atomic/ [s]cale, info re: cosmos.”  

Opinion popular
For data ocular:
Iron composes the overhead sun.  

At the time of these studies, the prevailing theory was that the sun was composed in large part of iron.  From the data that scientists could observe in the visible spectrum (“data ocular”— a bit of a stretch to serve the rhyme)— they discerned lines that they attributed primarily to iron, in adherence with the theory.  

“Ihron?” “Yes, irhon.”
“Iht’s chlearly juhst ironh;
Whe loohked aht khey lhines frohm hour spechtroscope’s rhun!”     

These lines highlight the ingenious way that Bodanis contextualized Payne’s story, by presenting spectroscopic information as different series of letters and words and showing the reader how it would be possible to misinterpret them, if you were already sure of what you expected to see.  

In the chapter of E = mc2 entitled “The Fires of the Sun,” which tells Payne’s story in the most detail, Bodanis writes

“An analogy can show what Payne did… If [the lines] came out, for example, as: ‘theysaidironagaien,’ you’d parse it to read ‘theysaidironagein’ and there’d be no need to worry too much about the odd spelling of agaien

But Payne kept an open mind.  What if it was really trying to communicate tHeysaidironagaien [?]” 

From David Bodanis’s E = mc2 ; note the letters in bold in each interpretation!

I built on Bodanis’s method for showing these spectroscopic anomalies in drafting this poem.  Here, I took particular advantage of the letter h: its ability to be silent or to have only a minor effect on pronunciation,  depending on where it shows up in a word.  These lines emphasize that in this hypothetical conversation among hypothetical scientists at the time, if they were determined not to observe “h,” they could’ve plausibly denied it (the “resolved” conversation would read as: “Iron?” “Yes, iron.” / “It’s clearly just iron; / We looked at key lines from our spectroscope’s run!”).   

It does indeed take some considerable imagination to ignore the strange spellings and odd pronunciations… but that is part of this story.  As with Perkin’s findings, described in the previous post, the unexpected and incorrect spellings here are intended to emphasize a moment of anomaly in scientific history: something is clearly amiss, and it requires some careful consideration to process and understand. Payne carefully considered the data and proposed that, instead, the element hydrogen was responsible for these main experimental findings.

Enter Payne, student,
First viewed as imprudent
For noting the excess of H in these signs.  
“Hydrogen fits
Pattern known.  It’s 
The likeliest culprit– not iron– for these spectral lines.”  

Over the next portion of the poem, the excess of the letter h is directly tied to the excess of the element hydrogen, represented via the chemical symbol H. 

Scientists were likewise determined not to see “H” (the chemical element H, hydrogen),  despite the evidence that Cecilia Payne presented for hydrogen’s existence in these solar spectra. 

Payne was a student at the time; it was and is particularly challenging in the structure of scientific graduate education to defy existing knowledge without the support of one’s advisor and other renowned scientists in the field.  She was “viewed as imprudent” for not adhering to the status quo, the prevailing theory of the time, in “noting the excess of [hydrogen]” in her data.

Solved, central mystery?
Payne’s place in history
Set by the finding?  Two obvious “Yesses”?  

The poem first optimistically queries whether Payne’s innovative findings were celebrated and her place set in scientific history: do the two specific questions of interest merit answers of “yes” ?

No!  The reception
Is cold; no exceptions.  
Some years will pass ere both are deemed as successes.  

As stated above, Payne’s findings were initially, frustratingly dismissed: “The reception/ [i]s cold: no exceptions.” 

In his book, Bodanis points out that Payne had to deny her key insights to complete her graduate work; he writes,

“In her own published thesis she had to insert the humiliating line: ‘The enormous abundance [of hydrogen]… is almost certainly not real.’” 

From David Bodanis’s E = mc2

It was not until years later that Payne and her insights were afforded the deserved recognition.  

Hydrogen’s place in the
Realms of astronomy,
Now well-established: identity main
As stars’ key constituent.  
No more diminuent 
Should be her story: Cecilia Payne.  

Hydrogen’s identity as a key component of stellar chemistry is now well established, as “identity main” (most abundant) for the sun and other stars.        

In 1925; Payne became the first person to earn a doctoral degree in astronomy from Radcliffe College of Harvard University.  One hundred years later, Payne’s doctoral thesis is recognized as the significant insight that it was; her subsequent career was likewise inspiring and fascinating.  

However, I note that it wasn’t until I looked beyond my own STEM curriculum and textbooks that I ever heard her name.  While I can attribute that in part to my taking a chemistry-centered path, versus an astronomy-focused one, spectroscopy has still been a key topic in many of my courses, and Payne’s discovery is a compelling and dramatic illustration of the importance of spectroscopic data.  “No more diminuent/ Should be her story”: I hope to remember this in my classrooms this autumn. 

Categories
Science Poetry

Violet Ends

Another attempt in this month of miscellaneous metrics… and this lengthier poem could likely use more of an introduction!  I’ve written on this website about the barriers that language can throw up in learning science; this is an attempt to flip that phenomenon, to use poetic structure to help illustrate a moment in the history of chemistry. 

As I have noted when I have discussed other writers’ creative STEM-adjacent essays, I would have benefited from learning more about the history of science and philosophy of science as a student, and I am intrigued by whether there might be a way to share an accessible introduction into these interdisciplinary fields.

This poem thus tells a story from the history of chemistry– William Perkin’s serendipitous discovery of the first synthetic (lab-made) dye– and employs the verse structure to highlight what was unusual and unexpected about it, using some of the concepts from philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and his related essay, “The Historical Structure of Scientific Discovery,” available in the essay compilation The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change.  I’ll write the poem in full first, then provide some additional context in revisiting it.    

***

Young William Perkin,
At lab bench a-workin’
On cure for malaria: task of the day.
Target synthetic
For student, mimetic
Of advisor’s goal: seek to quinine, pathway.  

Mix the reagents;
Observe mixture’s changes,
As surely, voila, target compound is made.  

Trial 1: disaster!
The lab flask is plastered 
With residue, blackened; it’s notably stained.  

Trial 2 beckons,
The chem student reckons.
Wash flask out and restart; to drawing board, back.

Ethanol rinses
The flask and evinces
Its cleanliness; solvent turns from clear to PURPLE.  

This violet in flask from cleanse collected:
A new result most wholly unexpected.
A moment of STEM’s serendipity—
Could route to hue confounding be perfected?  

Now navigating untrod territ’ry,
Investigator Perkin’s chemistry,
A route to lab-made dye: a revolution
Will rise from— NOT mistake— discovery!  

Repeat attempts yield still the mauve solution.  
For industry, route proves key substitution
For natural path to valued purple dye,
All from Will’s random act of flask elution.  

The story, decades old, still verifies
Sci Method’s start: observe, with open eyes.
Alert to novel data, self apprise.
In science, plan expected; heed surprise.  

***

Thomas Kuhn has written extensively about discovery in science and how it can change the fundamental rules by which a discipline exists, via a “paradigm shift.”  I modeled the structure of this poem using these ideas: illustrating different rules (here, rhyme schemes and poem structures, supplemented by different fonts) before and after Perkin’s unexpected discovery.  Working through these stanzas, I will aim to provide context for both the chemistry story and the poetic structure.   

***

Young William Perkin,
At lab bench a-workin’
On cure for malaria: task of the day.
Target synthetic
For student, mimetic
Of advisor’s goal: seek to quinine, pathway.  

William Henry Perkin worked in the lab of August Wilhelm von Hofmann as a student, in 1856; the two investigators were interested in finding a synthetic pathway to quinine, which held promise as a treatment for malaria.  The goal of the student echoed the goal of the advisor (“target synthetic / for student, mimetic / of advisor’s goal”).  

The double dactyl rhythms in these early stanzas are intentionally singsong in style, acclimating the reader to the “habit” of that familiar rhythm.  

***

Mix the reagents;
Observe mixture’s changes,
As surely, voila, target compound is made.  

The general plan in an organic chemistry experiment involves mixing together reactants to form a product.  If a reaction works perfectly (odds are quite good that it won’t!), one would see that “surely, voila, target compound is made.”  In brief, Hofmann and Perkin knew the molecular composition (how many of what type of atom) that quinine would have, and they devised a pathway by which the component atoms could presumably be put together to get there.  They did not, however, consider the three-dimensional, structural arrangement of the atoms in question.  That arrangement also has major implications for a compound’s behavior.    

The rhythm of the double dactyl persists here, emphasizing that, for the moment, things are still going according to plan.  

***

Trial 1: disaster!
The lab flask is plastered 
With residue, blackened; it’s notably stained.  

In reality, synthetic endeavors take quite a bit of trouble-shooting, and it was likely not a terrible surprise to Perkin that the first go-round resulted in the formation of an unintended product, with “blackened residue” coating the inside of the flask (the glassware in which the experiment was run).  

Likewise, the poem’s rhyme scheme continues; nothing out of the ordinary is evident, as of yet.  Synthetic experiments often require multiple attempts to perfect.      

***

Trial 2 beckons,
The chem student reckons.
Wash flask out and restart; to drawing board, back.

Presumably, after a disastrous first run, Perkin would have decided to simply restart the synthesis and move on to Trial 2.  In a modern lab, a chemist might use spectroscopic techniques to see what had been made instead, but without that characterization ability, Perkin presumably decided simply to go back to the beginning, washing out the flask and preparing for a second attempt.

Lab work can be frustrating and requires patience, but many steps are largely predictable.  The double dactyl continues apace.  

***

Ethanol rinses
The flask and evinces
Its cleanliness; solvent turns from clear to PURPLE.  

Perkin used ethanol to rinse out his glassware; ethanol is a common solvent that dissolves many organic compounds and is useful in cleaning ( “evinc[ing] a flask’s cleanliness”).  In doing so, he noticed that the solvent unexpectedly turned a brilliant shade of purple, as it dissolved some of the components in the residue.  This was a major shock, and the story is often cited as one of the serendipitous moments of science.  [Rather than the three-dimensional structure of quinine, which involves both aromatic (planar; flat) and aliphatic (non-planar; non-flat) regions, Perkin had synthesized a mostly aromatic, largely planar product that would ultimately be characterized as mauveine, the purple compound that gives mauve its color.]            

In the poetic form, the rules have gone askew!  The dactyls are no more, as of the end of the stanza’s last line; trying to fit these last syllables into dactylic feet would not work.  The poetic form here aims to highlight how disquieting Perkin’s moment of discovery must have seemed.  The expected rhyme is NOT “purple”: a clear organic solvent such as ethanol would generally take on the color of what it is cleaning, and the poem established in the previous stanza that the flask was stained black.  The unexpected rhythm is intended to emphasize what Thomas Kuhn would call a “moment of anomaly” in scientific history, in a poetic context.   

***

This violet in flask from cleanse collected:
A new result most wholly unexpected.
A moment of STEM’s serendipity—
Could route to hue confounding be perfected?  

What crossed Perkin’s mind, ultimately,  was the fact that, if he could repeat the steps and determine a reliable route to a purple dye, it would be commercially valuable.  Prior to his experiment, the expensive Tyrian purple dye was obtained from a natural compound obtained from the Murex snail; generating enough dye for a viable sample required thousands of snails.   If the “route to [the] hue confounding” could “be perfected,” that synthetic pathway would be tremendously valuable to the clothing industry and others who used dyes.     

In the poem, nothing is familiar compared to the starting stanzas.  Taking a step back, though, we can see that there are still regular rhymes and rhythm… if we can take the time and recalibrate, to consider how everything fits together.   We have shifted into iambic pentameter (da-DA, da-DA, da-DA; five TIMES per LINE) and into the stanza-perpetuating form (AABA, BBCB, CCDC) of the rubaiyat!  The new metric feet will likely take a few lines for the reader to adjust to, but once that adjustment is made, the poem regains a predictable form.        

***

Now navigating untrod territ’ry,
Investigator Perkin’s chemistry,
A route to lab-made dye: a revolution
Will rise from— NOT mistake— discovery!  

Repeat attempts yield still the mauve solution.  
For industry, route proves key substitution
For natural path to valued purple dye,
All from Will’s random act of flask elution.  

Perkin repeated the synthesis, optimized the steps, published the results, and organic chemistry was forever changed.  It is a major step when something previously available only from a scarce natural source can now be made synthetically, in a lab.  From the discovery of mauveine arose the synthetic dye industry (“key substitution / for natural path”);  from the synthetic dye industry arose the modern chemical industry, more generally.  

The rubaiyat continues with its AABA, BBCB, CCDC pattern through a few more stanzas, each line constructed via iambic pentameter.  The reader can adjust and follow the new structure of the poem to its end.  

***

The story, decades old, still verifies
Sci Method’s start: observe, with open eyes.
Alert to novel data, self apprise.
In science, plan expected; heed surprise.  

Perkin’s experiment occurred more than 150 years ago, but it still provides a wonderful and dramatic story, emphasizing the crucial role of informed observation in the scientific method and echoing Louis Pasteur’s famous quote: “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.”  The combination of Perkin’s formal training in organic chemistry and his skills in observation let him understand the immense importance of this moment: to both “plan expected,” devising an experiment, and “heed surprise,” realizing what had happened in that moment that the solvent turned to its vivid violet color.        

This final stanza resolves the rubaiyat, with four lines’ ending in the same rhyme, giving a poetic clue that this particular story is at its end.   

***

Overall, what I’ve attempted to do here is to contrast what Kuhn would call the puzzle-solving steps of this story (using known scientific techniques to fill in known gaps in organic chemistry knowledge; here, fitting words into the structure/rhythm of double dactylic stanzas), with its moment of anomaly (the bizarre and unexpected result that requires a re-evaluation of the surrounding scientific framework; here, the interruption of the established rhyme scheme to begin a new one).  

Interestingly, the precise moment of seeing “purple” isn’t the discovery itself.  In Kuhn’s words, “discovering a new sort of phenomenon is necessarily a complex process which involves both that something is and what it is.”  More time is needed to know what’s happening and why, both for Perkin many years ago and for the reader in this moment.  What is indisputable is that the “rules” have changed, and it takes some time to adapt to that unexpected observation, and that’s what I’ve aimed to illustrate through the disjointed form of this poem.  

Categories
STEM Education Poetry

Notes on Notation

Begin here with music: note how the notation
Relies so intently on rightly-read clef.  
If reader takes bass for the treble relation,
Then trouble’s pronounced and musician’s bereft.  
Mentation frustration without keen attention:   
I see in particular paradigm shift

That’s flung into vantage point, yielding dissension
When ref’rence frame crumbles with signposts adrift. 

In chemistry classrooms, such unwanted hazards
Persist even further with vocab galore.
(HIO4, periōdic the acid;
While chart periǒdic is Table explored.)

Recall I a moment in own chem endeavor:
Confusing two units’ shared (seeming) veneer,
In reading wavenumber as “cm” whenever
The energy unit on paper appeared.  
(A decade-plus passes before my chagrin 
Fades at reaction clear in my own teacher’s face.
I understand now, but as novice, I didn’t; 
Embarrassed I was, and my question, erased.)

Find “why” in a Feynman piece: read repercussions
Acknowledged if STEM’s talk is not standardized.
Hence we facilitate complex discussion,
With common notation that’s pinpoint-precise.  

Mentioned in Music, a key introduction:
“By learning notation, we’ll open bookshelf.”  

Learning Chem’s shibboleths: Why?
Lede is buried, I ruefully note to my Past Student Self.  

As alluded to over the last few weeks, these July essays will be a more random collection from some ideas that have been percolating through a few years of teaching; clearly, they’ll vary in length, as well.

This poem addresses the challenging nuances of learning symbolic notation, especially as they pertain to chemistry; its consistent meter helped me arrange some scattered thoughts somewhat more coherently.  Its themes are not novel.  Many have written far more eloquently than I about the differences between experts and novices in a discipline; Saundra McGuire’s Teach Students How to Learn has been particularly illuminating, during my past few years in a chemistry faculty career.   Rather, I am using this space to better organize my thoughts before the (ever-more-rapidly approaching) autumn term.  

Begin here with music: note how the notation /
Relies so intently on rightly-read clef.  /
If reader takes bass for the treble relation, /

Then trouble’s pronounced and musician’s bereft. /
Mentation frustration without keen attention: /  
I see in particular paradigm shift
/
That’s flung into vantage point, yielding dissension /
When ref’rence frame crumbles with signposts adrift.  

Before I shift to my chemistry-focused discussion, I will start with a more familiar disciplinary convention: reading music. 

Though I have never taken music theory coursework, I know from playing piano for several years that the bass and treble clefs of a piece of music are vital contextual information, as are the key and time signatures.  In band classes and piano lessons, I spent much time learning how to read these important signifiers.  If a musician is given a piece of music written in the bass clef, but accidentally interprets it as being in the treble clef, dissonance ensues!  They would be performing the wrong notes in the wrong octave: musically bereft.

I’ve had a few such experiences in my life when practicing piano; upon realizing it, my “reference frame crumbled” until the “signposts” of that notation re-resolved themselves in my mind.  (I borrowed Thomas Kuhn’s phrasing of “paradigm shift” to illustrate the idea of reframing the experienced world, admittedly on a tiny scale.) 

I’ve also seen this “mentation frustration” in chemistry.

In chemistry classrooms, such unwanted hazards /
Persist even further with vocab galore. /
(HIO4, periōdic the acid; /
While chart periǒdic is Table explored.)

With its complex vocabularies, chemistry has all sorts of inherent stumbling blocks, where similar wordings can mean very different things.  Interpretation requires an awareness of context, analogous to knowing the staffs in musical notation.  

The example I cite here is well-known.  The molecular formula HIO4 corresponds to a molecule called “periōdic acid,” where the word “periodic” is pronounced with a long O (as in “boat”).  The word “periǒdic” as it pertains to the “Periodic Table of the Elements,” by contrast, is pronounced with a short O (as in “fox”).   

In the first example, “periodic” is a name communicating information about the atoms in the molecule; in the second example, “periodic” describes how elements’ properties recur as organized in their famous table.  These two terms are spelled identically but pronounced differently; they differ completely in their meaning.  None of this is immediately obvious to a new student.                    

Recall I a moment in own chem endeavor: /
Confusing two units’ shared (seeming) veneer, /
In reading wavenumber as “cm” whenever /
The energy unit on paper appeared. /
(A decade-plus passes before my chagrin fades /
At reaction clear in my own teacher’s face. /
I understand now, but as novice, I didn’t; /
Embarrassed I was, and my question, erased.)

These lines recount my own experience with a similar challenge.  Centimeters and wavenumbers are both units used in chemistry.  Centimeters are abbreviated as “cm,” while wavenumbers are “inverse centimeters,” abbreviated as “cm-1.”  The units look similar [they have a “shared (seeming) veneer”], but they measure different quantities; centimeters are units of length, while wavenumbers are units of energy, most directly useful for chemists in expressing spectroscopic information.  The abbreviations have different meanings.  

I remember vividly a question I once had as an undergraduate student, in my own “chem endeavor.” This question concerned an infrared spectrum, in which the pertinent data are presented in wavenumbers.  In talking to the course professor, I started to ask my question, incorrectly expressing the unit as centimeters (the poem’s meter here requires the unit to be read as the separate letters: “c”;“m”).  My professor blanched and emphatically corrected me: “WAVENUMBERS.”  I was embarrassed and promptly forgot whatever question I’d actually had.    

Years later, I understand the vehemence of my professor’s reaction.  To a trained chemist, my question was the gauche equivalent of “referr[ing] to George Eliot as a ‘he’ in a room full of English professors,” to take this into yet another discipline and quote The Well of Lost Plots, from Jasper Fforde’s inventive Thursday Next series.  But as a student, I was surprised and chagrined; my takeaway was that I had insulted a professor I respected, by phrasing my question incorrectly.    

Find “why” in a Feynman piece: note repercussions /
Acknowledged if STEM’s talk is not standardized. /
Hence we facilitate complex discussion, /
With common notation that’s pinpoint-precise.  

Something that I never found directly acknowledged (as a student) was “why” I was spending so much time on a doubly difficult subject: the obvious concepts were challenging enough; why was there also an important symbolic layer that was comparatively de-emphasized in class?  Eventually, I saw the symbols enough that they became second-nature, and again, I forgot the question.   

Years later, I would find a Richard Feynman essay that directly addressed these concerns.  Feynman discusses creating his own set of symbols as a student, with which he describes his findings in his home lab.  He notes a classmate’s confusion at these non-standard representations, though, and recounts, “I thought my symbols were just as good, if not better, than the regular symbols– it doesn’t make any difference what symbols you use– but I discovered later that it does make a difference…. I realized that if I’m going to talk to anybody else, I’ll have to use the standard symbols.”  Even later, I would hear Hope Jahren speak eloquently of the tension between disciplinary and everyday language in an interview regarding her outstanding memoir Lab Girl and her deliberate choice to avoid jargon in writing it: “[Scientific terms] are part of a language that takes years to learn and that scientists speak amongst themselves. So by describing these things in terms that you use every day, I’ve made the choice to come to you using your words in order that you understand me.  And that’s breaking a rule.”  (In both quotes, the emphasis is mine.)   

As a student, I was keenly interested in both English and chemistry.  I was aware that language was functioning differently in my science classes than in my writing coursework; I was frustrated that I couldn’t fully understand or articulate that difference. Both Feynman’s and Jahren’s candid comments would have been immensely useful.      

Mentioned in Music, a key introduction: /
“By learning notation, we’ll open bookshelf.” /  

Learning Chem’s shibboleths: Why? /
Lede is buried, I ruefully note to my Past Student Self.  

Learning music begins with direct acknowledgements of the notation: why did I want to learn it, as a student?  So I could “open [the] bookshelf,” find a songbook, and play music on the piano.  Teachers consistently explained this; music was accessible and fun; the motivation was clear.  

The “Why?” behind learning chemistry’s symbolic language is comparatively hidden, even though it’s similar.  To collaborate with other scientists, one needs to be able to speak with them, using their “pinpoint-precise” notations for challenging concepts.  That unacknowledged language-learning is a big part of General Chemistry.  The textbooks are filled with unintentional shibboleths: generally defined in the margins and sidebars but rarely recognized as equivalent in importance to “getting the right answer” to algorithmic questions and calculations on exams.    

My last line acknowledges that this crucial information, the lede, is buried.  It also highlights my current “rueful” distance from my student experience: how nearly completely I’d forgotten that sense of frustration.  I will work to remember and empathize, as I approach the new academic year.

Categories
Science Poetry

Synthetic Poetics

Electric, eclectic:
The lectures of
Sir Humphry Davy,
A chemist with poetic side;
Experimentally,
Davy will demonstrate
Batt’ries voltaic and
Nitrous oxide.  

The varied July posts begin with a new non-Twitter poem. I originally wrote this a few months ago as part of the NaPoWriMo “Twitter bios” but didn’t post it in April; I thought I’d rather use the additional context that an essay could provide.

This near-double-dactyl recounts some of the details of the life of Sir Humphry Davy, a renowned chemist who worked at the turn of the nineteenth century.  

Electric, eclectic: /
The lectures of /
Sir Humphry Davy, /
A chemist with poetic side…    
A fun aspect of exploring creative writing as it pertains to science has been learning more about the overlap of chemistry and poetry, more generally.  

Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829), a chemist most famous for the isolation of several elements and the invention of an arc lamp, was also a contemporary of the Romantic-era poets William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), and their three paths crossed constructively on multiple occasions.  One of my favorite quotes on their creative collaborations is from Coleridge: “I attended Davy’s lectures to renew my stock of metaphors.” 

Davy’s public lectures and chemical demonstrations at the Royal Institution were particularly famous in this era, as the second half of this poem highlights in more specific detail, and they included a variety of electrolysis experiments (“[e]lectric, eclectic”).        

Experimentally, /
Davy will demonstrate /
Batt’ries voltaic and /
Nitrous oxide.  
As Coleridge’s quote suggests, Davy’s lectures were intended to appeal to the general audience; he had been hired for that particular position due to his skill in scientific communication.  Sam Illingworth’s excellent A Sonnet to Science: Scientists and Their Poetry explains this and tells Davy’s story in much greater detail (along with the stories of several other poetry-writing scientists!).  Some of his most common lecture topics involved using voltaic batteries for his experiments in electrolysis and breathing nitrous oxide (which he was the first to dub “laughing gas”).

In addition to inspiring other poets’ metaphors, Davy is known for writing his own poetry about some of his scientific endeavors.    The latter lecture topic cited here gave rise to perhaps his own most famous poem: “On Breathing the Nitrous Oxide,” reporting on his own observed experiences in doing so.

Much of Davy’s writing, both scientific and poetic, can be found in his research notebooks; The Davy Notebooks Project is a fascinating project dedicated to transcribing their contents. 

  

Categories
STEM Education Poetry

Summer Terms

As days pass, June’s suddenly waning.
From writing work, I’ve been refraining.
But… annual insight:
The summer is finite.
So, back to a routine, maintaining.  

In honor of June 30, this non-Twitter poem depicts my yearly realization of the moment when June disappears.  It is useful for me to set some concrete goals for this space, over the next few weeks.    

As days pass, June’s suddenly waning.
It was a major accomplishment to reach the end of this academic year, with all of its challenges.  The remainder of May then brought many meetings and much paperwork, with discussions of both 2019-20 and 2020-21.  

June has thus been, as ever, the month where I’ve scheduled everything “else”: all the errands and appointments that are overdue after the busyness of spring term.  It is a relief to know the blocks of time are available, but the days go quickly, and I often find the month is “suddenly waning.”  That’s certainly a pronounced feeling at the moment.           

From writing work, I’ve been refraining.
The summer term brings miscellaneous academic tasks: research in the lab; faculty book groups; conferences and workshops.  So far, time has been short enough that I haven’t been posting here.  I have several Twitter poems still to “translate,” from Fall 2020 and NaPoWriMo 2021, but those brief essays fit best in the academic year.  

But… annual insight: /
The summer is finite. /
So, back to a routine, maintaining.  
It should not be shocking, after so many years in academia, but the shift from “summer-as-the-break-from-the-spring” to “summer-as-the-time-to-prepare-for-the-autumn” still manages to surprise me, each year (“annual insight:/ [t]he summer is finite”).  

I’ve found it useful to write regularly here, so I’ll aim to return to “a routine, maintaining.”  Each Wednesday, through July, I plan to post an essay drafted during the past few years; I hope that this goal will provide motivation to finish and edit those pieces.  (As for August, we’ll see: the shift from July to August brings challenges of its own!)  

Categories
STEM Education Poetry

Asynchronous Marches

“Since pomp and circumstance are,
In this Sunday’s scene, secluded,
To lines in verse instead,
Re: 2020, I’ve alluded…
We’ll tell this– not with sighs, but cheers–
In all the ages hence:
The story of our class for whom,
In March, grad march commenced.”

The 3 May 2020 poem was written in honor of the Spring 2020 graduates from my institution; they unfortunately were unable to have their scheduled graduation ceremony, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  This upcoming weekend marks the commencement ceremony for the Class of 2021, and so this essay provides a logical place to pause these updates for a few weeks: to celebrate the conclusion of another challenging academic year.    

“Since pomp and circumstance are, /
In this Sunday’s scene, secluded, /
To lines in verse instead, /
Re: 2020, I’ve alluded…”
The pomp and circumstance of commencement ceremonies generally provide a welcome and fitting end to an academic year.  During Spring 2020, these attributes were necessarily “secluded”; it was not possible for students and faculty to gather for a celebratory event.  

In the days leading up to what would have been the 2020 graduation ceremony, I thought often of some of the phrases in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”  I referenced these “lines in verse” in this poem, in writing about the circumstances of the spring (“Re: 2020”).  

“We’ll tell this– not with sighs, but cheers– / 
In all the ages hence: /
The story of our class for whom, / 
In March, grad march commenced.”     
Whenever I mention an existing poem in one of my own verses, I am torn; Twitter’s character limit prohibits exploring any nuance in a given post, and I lack the expertise to do so, even had I sufficient space.  All that said, though, I built on Frost’s description of “telling this with a sigh / [s]omewhere ages and ages hence,” in my last four lines.  

We will remember our 2020 graduates far into the future, but with a celebratory air, rather than a melancholy one.  These students achieved significant accomplishments in successfully finishing their coursework, despite their early departures from campus: despite the fact that their “grad march” technically began in March 2020.       

Happily, though, this weekend, we will celebrate the classes of both 2020 and 2021.  Thus, the graduation march described in this poem has turned out to be a path delayed, but still taken.  

Categories
writing

Periodic Practice

“The end of these April renditions;
I wrap up here second edition
Of month STEM-poetic,
Routine theoretic:
Two years now of rhyming tradition.”  

The 30 April 2020 limerick commemorated the end of my second attempt at National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo).  

“The end of these April renditions…”
National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo), like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), encourages writers to spend a month-long stretch devoted to a daily routine of writing.  For me, personally, a poem per day is significantly more feasible than a novel in a month!  April 30 has marked a milestone in the past few years, as I’ve managed thirty poems in thirty days in both 2019 and 2020.  

“I wrap up here second edition /
Of month STEM-poetic…”
In reality, the 2019 poems were more cohesive in their focus on chemistry concepts and stories (“STEM-poetic”) than were the 2020 poems. The 2020 project did acknowledge several scientific concepts and scientists, but on other days, I simply described the historic and unusual circumstances of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic.  I’ve been finding the distinctions between work and life quite blurred, over the past several months, so perhaps this “second edition” can be thought of as acknowledging that.  

“Routine theoretic: /
Two years now of rhyming tradition.”  
 
I’ve written here previously that the overlap of writing practice and chemistry concepts (a “routine theoretic”) has been particularly helpful for me.  That has continued in this challenging year.  Having the structure of NaPoWriMo has been useful in generating poetic verse; expanding on those brief poems in short essays has likewise provided a welcome distraction during some busy weeks. 

As I write this entry, I’m through the majority of my third NaPoWriMo, and I am hopeful that I can finish the 2021 poems, as well, to revisit here later this year. 

Categories
Science Poetry

Weighty Matters

“Clearly, convincingly,
S. Cannizzaro
Considers delib’rately
Atoms and weights;
His Karlsruhe Congress talk
Proves instrumental as
Step towards resolving
Periodic debate.”  

The 29 April 2020 Twitter poem focused on Stanislao Cannizzaro (1826-1910) and his role in clarifying atomic weight, a key concept for chemists, at the Karlsruhe Congress.      

“Clearly, convincingly, /
S. Cannizzaro /
Considers delib’rately /
Atoms and weights…”
The Karlsruhe Congress, held in 1860, was the first international meeting of chemists.  Scientists from several nations discussed the need to more systematically consider questions of nomenclature (naming compounds), chemical notation (representing compounds’ chemical make-up, structural arrangement, etc.), and atomic weight (quantifying elements’ weights relative to one another).  Prior to Karlsruhe, different groups of chemists used different notations and reference schemes, and communication between groups often presented a significant challenge.    

Of particular note, a paper from Stanislao Cannizzaro, written originally for his students, was distributed at this meeting; it drew a distinction between weights of atoms and weights of molecules, building on the work of Amedeo Avogadro.  For many attendees, this paper and its presentation resolved several important questions.    

“His Karlsruhe Congress talk /
Proves instrumental as /
Step towards resolving /
Periodic debate.”  
Two attendees at the Karlsruhe meeting were Julius Lothar Meyer (1830-1895) and Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907).  Both of them were inspired by the standardization of atomic weight made possible by Cannizarro’s statements.  Further, each was a chemistry teacher and used this idea in writing a new textbook for his students, organizing the elements into a table based on atomic weight; thus, Cannizzaro’s talks and paper “prove[d] instrumental.”

While both scientists were key figures in the development of periodic law, a publication by Mendeleev in 1869 is most commonly cited as the first version of the modern periodic table of the elements (PTE).  

The last few lines here use “periodic debate” both to describe an academic discussion of periodic law and to emphasize the iterative nature of scientific discussions.  

Categories
Science Poetry

By Leaps and Bounds

“Certainly, expertly,
Barbara McClintock:
Transposons deciphered
Through her watchful gaze;
Cytogeneticist,
Solving key puzzle;
Her insights are leaping
Through intricate maze.”  

The poem posted on 28 April 2020 celebrated the career and insights of Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983 due to her remarkable discoveries in cytogenetics.     

“Certainly, expertly, /
Barbara McClintock: /
Transposons deciphered /
Through her watchful gaze…”
Barbara McClintock (1902-1992) received the Nobel Prize “for her discovery of mobile genetic elements,” also known as transposons or jumping genes.  

A famous quote from McClintock exemplifies her “watchful gaze,” her significant observational skills: 

“No two plants are exactly alike.  They’re all different and as a consequence, you have to know that difference.  I start with the seedling and I don’t want to leave it.  I don’t feel I really know the story if I don’t watch the plant all the way along.  So I know every plant in the field.  I know them intimately.  And I find it a great pleasure to know them.” 

Barbara McClintock, quoted in “Women Who Changed Science,” via NobelPrize.org

“Cytogeneticist, /
Solving key puzzle; /
Her insights are leaping /
Through intricate maze.”  
For most of her career, McClintock worked at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.  She examined the overlap of cytology and genetics: the relationships between the chromosomes of corn plants (at the cellular level) and those plants’ appearances (specifically, their colors).  She discovered that the varied appearance of maize kernels at the macroscopic level could be attributed to movements of certain segments of the pertinent chromosomes at the cellular level; this was revolutionary, and it took several decades for McClintock’s work to be accepted and recognized.  

The last lines of this poem emphasize some linguistic links: first, the sounds of “maze” and “maize,” noting that McClintock’s study of corn as a model organism solved a puzzle for the larger field of genetics; second, the pairing of “leaps of insight” with the jumping genes to which McClintock devoted such significant study.      

Categories
Science Poetry

Sounding the Depths

“Rightly and writerly,
Rachel L. Carson,
As author and scientist,
Insights will bring:
Marine biology;
Earth-bound ecology;
Giving a voice to the 
Sounds of the spring.” 

It is interesting in revisiting the NaPoWriMo 2020 poems to realize that far fewer were as specifically science- or chemistry-themed as those from the 2019 project had been.  Many addressed, instead, the unusual and challenging circumstances of Spring 2020.  

This next essay thus revisits a poem from 27 April 2020, as the month began to wind down with some additional “Twitter biographies,” focusing again on renowned scientists via a modified form of the double dactyl poem.  

“Rightly and writerly, /
Rachel L. Carson, /
As author and scientist, /
Insights will bring…”
Rachel Louise Carson (1907-1964) was a gifted scientist and author whose books in aquatic biology and conservation science brought scientific insights to a general audience.  She received many accolades for her writing and her scientific work.        

‘“Marine biology; /
Earth-bound ecology; /
Giving a voice to the /
Sounds of the spring.” 
Carson’s gifts for scientific investigation and effective prose were blended throughout her academic path and professional career.  She originally planned to attend college on a writing scholarship, but she turned her attention to science, earning her bachelor’s degree in biology and her master’s degree in marine zoology. 

Given her academic training, Carson then worked for many years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  When she completed a writing project for the agency that was recognized by her editor to be too eloquent to be confined to a bureaucratic brochure, she ultimately submitted the essay to The Atlantic.  Eventually, she turned her attention more fully to science writing, publishing three books about marine science: Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea.  

These last two lines address Carson’s most famous book, Silent Spring, which compiled a wide range of scientific evidence and studies on the danger of overreliance on pesticides and presented that evidence in creatively written, scientifically accurate prose.  She effectively communicated the complex relationships between the environment and human society, and her book inspired many efforts in environmental conservation.  Sadly, Carson did not live to see the immense scope of the impacts that her work would achieve, as she died of cancer in 1964