Science Poetry

Annual Appreciation

“Practical, rational
Findings: week celebrates,
Spotlighting chem work of 
National fame…
Highlight stick-to-it-ive 
Process and aims!”

The 19 October 2020 Twitter poem marked the start of National Chemistry Week 2020.

“Practical, rational /
Findings: week celebrates, /
Spotlighting chem work of /
National fame…”

The first four lines noted the general themes of National Chemistry Week, which celebrates chemistry research across the USA.  The American Chemical Society sponsors related events and campaigns, throughout late October.  Each year involves a different theme highlighting a different aspect of the discipline of chemistry.    

Lab-analyzingly, /
Goal-synthesizingly: /
Highlight stick-to-it-ive /
Process and aims!”

The second four lines of this poem were focused on the 2020 theme for National Chemistry Week, “Sticking with Chemistry,” examining the science behind adhesives.  

Two hyphenated double-dactyl words, “lab-analyzingly” and “goal-synthesizingly,” summarized some of the main ways in which chemists complete their work.  Several types of analysis can be completed on compounds to understand their elemental composition and overall properties.  New chemical species can be synthesized in the lab, putting elements into new combinations. 

The “stick-to-it-ive” phrasing emphasized both adhesives as the subject of the 2020 celebration, specifically, and the determination with which scientists approach their goals, generally!  

This year’s week began on Monday and, for 2021, celebrates a theme related to ideas of chemical kinetics and reaction rates: “Fast or Slow, Chemistry Makes it Go.”  A new round of Twitter poems is thus in progress… which I’ll return to next year, in this space. 

STEM Education Poetry

Midterm Moments

Halfway through pathway to
End of semester, in
Midst of October as 
Projects abound.
Hectic, eclectic:
Exams will accumulate;
Heed well the schedule;
Assignments compound!

This Twitter poem was posted on 12 October 2020, and the timing lines up well with the current academic calendar. It is not particularly mysterious in its chemistry content, compared to some of the last few!  

“Halfway through pathway to /
End of semester, in /
Midst of October as /
Projects abound…”
Our autumn semester starts in late August and ends in early December. Thus, depending on the course in question, a midterm exam or project in mid-October tends to mark the halfway point.  

This poem found its inspiration in the “halfway… pathway” sounds, along with the timing of the calendar.  The two similar words suggested the double dactyl rhythm.  

“Hectic, eclectic:
Exams will accumulate;
Heed well the schedule;
Assignments compound!”
Part of the challenge of an academic semester is the wide variety of assignments and assessments that add up over the course of a student’s overall schedule. Often, multiple exams or due dates land on the same day, and so it’s necessary to “[h]eed well the schedule“ to ensure time to prepare for everything, as needed. 

The last line, with the pun on the word “compound,” is the main link to chemistry content in this particular poem; the sense of accumulating exam stress is likely familiar to students in any academic field! 

Science Poetry

Inflection Points

A painting will react within the air,
The timescale long but resolutely strict;
I learn to my chagrin, almost despair,
And note the harm that passing years inflict. 

To H2O and CO2, paints age,
Convert o’er time; their final state is thus
The same as that for any on this stage. 
(See also: “Ash to ash and dust to dust.”)  

A sobering realization in its time;
I find a new perspective eight years on.
From songs and stories, portraits, prose, and rhyme,
The mem’ries of ancestral homes now gone…

I offer what I can the powerful play,
Take up the pen ‘gainst Time, and join the fray.

This is a non-Twitter poem, and it was a first poetic effort after many years of academic-only writing, as part of a creative writing course I was fortunate to find in Summer 2018.  The course involved daily writing prompts ranging from non-fiction to fiction and finally to poetry.  

In this particular day’s prompt, we were asked to rewrite a Shakespearean sonnet.  I found that reading a few of them and considering the strict rules of their structure helped me to frame an interesting image I’d encountered in a teaching workshop several years before.  At that point, I titled the resulting poem “From a Workshop in Walla Walla, Washington (with apologies to both “Sonnet 15” and Leaves of Grass),” wanting to be sure I credited every aspect of its provenance… perhaps to an absurd extent!

A painting will react within the air, /
The timescale long but resolutely strict, /
I learn to my chagrin, almost despair, /
And note the harm that passing years inflict.  

To H2O and CO2, paints age, /
Convert o’er time; their final state is thus /
The same as that for any on this stage. /
(See also: “Ash to ash and dust to dust.”)   

The poem, drafted in a creative writing class, references another welcome educational opportunity.  

Days after my first year of tenure-track teaching ended in 2010, I flew across the country to a wonderful workshop on Chemistry and Art, held that year in the state of Washington.  It turned out to be the restorative week I needed after the utter exhaustion of that first year.  Working with other scientists and artists, I listened to lectures and completed projects in which I considered the interdisciplinary overlap of chemistry and art more directly than I ever had before: synthesizing a solid pigment as an example of a precipitation reaction; dyeing a fabric to demonstrate interactions between the molecules of the fabric and the molecules of the dye.     

This poem originated from one particularly vivid takeaway point from an art conservation lecture: “[a] painting will react within the air.”  Any painting hanging on a museum wall is hanging in a reactive environment, since the oxygen in the air will cause oxidation reactions to occur.   (Pieces of artwork are sometimes displayed under an inert atmosphere of nitrogen gas only, to avoid these unwanted chemical reactions; certainly, factors such as temperature, lighting, and humidity are carefully controlled in a museum setting more generally.)  

When an organic compound undergoes a combustion reaction (oxidation), it is converted to water and to carbon dioxide.  The binders in oil paints are mixtures of organic compounds (containing carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen).  I had known both of these points, detachedly, for years, and yet I could point to the seat in the classroom where I was sitting when the implication truly clicked.  

The end products of a such a compound’s combustion reaction, even if that reaction doesn’t end for hundreds of years, will be water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2), in terms of the molecular formulas of the thermodynamically stable, final compounds.  “[T]he timeline [is] long,” but the reaction pathway is “resolutely strict.”  In other words, the final state of a painting is not the painting… but these ephemeral reaction products, easily borne away on the air.  

I found this idea reminiscent of the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” phrase found in religious texts and framed it here as an academic note, via the “see also” directive.  

A sobering realization in its time; /
I find a new perspective eight years on. /
From songs and stories, portraits, prose, and rhyme, /
The mem’ries of ancestral homes now gone…

An inflection point, in computational chemistry (or mathematics generally), is where the curve of the mathematical function of interest changes sign.  An inflection point, in a story, is where the plot changes direction.  These lines mark an “intra-poem” inflection point, as I shift here from my chemistry discussion to a line of thought it helped inspire.   

The Chemistry and Art workshop was in Summer 2010.  “[E]ight years on,” at the time of my 2018 writing course, I was dealing with several recent losses within my immediate and extended family.  I had found myself unable in the time immediately afterward to consider any of the family memories that had once meant so much, via so many different media: music, stories, photographs.  Meanwhile, my writing had calcified into an academic, disciplinary-jargon-informed voice in the years after college.  

This writing exercise was thus an inflection point of its own, as I found that I had finally achieved enough fluency with chemistry material to be able to write about it in a more creative way.   This in turn led easily to the more personal reflection, supported by the structure of the sonnet form.

I offer what I can the powerful play, /
Take up the pen ‘gainst Time, and join the fray.  

The closing couplet provides the more measured homage to Walt Whitman and William Shakespeare that the first, clumsy title had aimed to make abundantly clear.  Whitman’s Leaves of Grass famously queries and responds: “The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life? /  Answer. / That you are here—that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15 addresses the inevitability of Time’s arrow and the writer’s resolute effort against it: “And all in war with Time for love of you, / As he takes from you, I engraft you new.”     

I remember where I sat at the workshop when I first connected the dots about the finite lifetime of a work of art.  I remember a morning in my living room years later, as these allusions fell into systematic syllabic place alongside those images from chemistry and, finally, a tribute to my family: the strict rules of the sonnet fit the myriad puzzle pieces into a coherent image. The pertinent turn back towards creative writing has led to a rewarding routine in the years since, including the regular use of this website space.  

STEM Education Poetry

Alkane Knowledge

“Naming a molecule:
Precise endeavor that
Draws on organic skills
Nuanced and vast.
Start with the carbon chains;
Look for the longest (and
So on, and so on, with
Concepts from class).”

The 5 October 2020 Twitter poem addressed a common objective from introductory and organic chemistry coursework: learning how to name a molecule.  

“Naming a molecule: /
Precise endeavor that /
Draws on organic skills /
Nuanced and vast.”
A few of these posts have already addressed some of the intricacies of chemical nomenclature.  Chemists have developed systematic rules for naming compounds: an early consideration is whether a compound is inorganic or organic, as each classification requires its own precise set of rules.  These rules are managed by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, or IUPAC.  Organic compounds are often interchangeably called molecules.  To name a molecule thus requires “organic skills [that are] nuanced and vast.”

“Start with the carbon chains; /
Look for the longest (and /
So on, and so on, with /
Concepts from class).”
In an acyclic hydrocarbon molecule, the first rule of naming is to identify the longest carbon chain.  This will inherently give the root word of the name; for instance, a saturated hydrocarbon chain containing six carbons all bonded to one another in a line is called hexane.  

The dismissive “and so on, and so on” mention in the poem omits much follow-up information.  The rules of naming then involve considering what side chains are bonded to that longest chain, whether any functional groups are involved, whether any double or triple bonds are present, and many other considerations.   It requires much practice to use nomenclature “concepts from class” in any efficient way.  

The title here confines our analysis to the very simplest cases: hydrocarbon compounds where each carbon atom is saturated, or bonded to four other atoms; such compounds are called alkanes.  Moreover, the title allows a play on words with “arcane knowledge,” a description that can certainly seem apt for nomenclature! 

STEM Education Poetry

Cataloging Contents

“Beakers and 
Test tubes and
Funnels and 
Stir rods;
Pipettes and
Condensers and
Glassware galore.
Bunsen burner; 
A mortar and pestle;
All in lab drawer.”

The 28 September 2020 poem used dactylic feet to catalog some of the many pieces of lab equipment used in introductory chemistry.  

“Beakers and /
Test tubes and /
Funnels and /
Stir rods; /
Pipettes and /
Condensers and /
Glassware galore.”
The first week of a lab course is typically devoted to “check-in”: ensuring that each lab student has a complete set of equipment in their lab drawer with which to complete the tasks of the upcoming academic term.  This can be an overwhelming process, as students are introduced to a wide variety of items and names!  

The tools used in lab are typically used to measure volumes of liquid reagents (as with a pipette), prepare reactant mixtures (beakers, funnels, stir rods), and observe the behavior of small samples (test tubes).  More complex syntheses or purification techniques often rely on condensers and other pieces of “glassware galore.”

“Tongs; /
Bunsen burner; /
A mortar and pestle; /
Thermometer; /
Scoopula— /
All in lab drawer.”
The wide variety of items cited here in the last few lines highlight even more of the variety of goals in a lab class.  

Some of these items are related to heating and working with heated reaction mixtures (Bunsen burners and tongs, respectively, used most typically with glassware); or monitoring heat energy flow in a chemical reaction, by monitoring temperature via a thermometer.  Others are used to prepare solid reactants for use in a reaction: a scoopula can be used to obtain materials from a reagent bottle, while a mortar and pestle can be used to grind up the solid material as finely as possible.  
Several online resources include some fantastic graphics and summaries related to these materials that I often have referenced in the first week of a lab course, as students work to ensure that “all [is] in lab drawer,” preparing for the upcoming semester. 

STEM Education Poetry

Balancing Acts

“Balanced reactions are
Statements describing a 
Chemical tale;
Relevant math skills are
Termed stoichiometry.
Learn these techniques: 
On assessments, prevail!”

The 21 September 2020 poem was a pseudo-double-dactyl summarizing some common themes from introductory chemistry courses.  

“Balanced reactions are /
Equiproportional /
Statements describing a /
Chemical tale…”
As described elsewhere on this site, a balanced reaction (one in which the number of each type of element is consistent across the reaction arrow) communicates a great deal of useful information about the chemical process in question.  

Such reactions explain the relative number of moles of each chemical species; they are “equiproportional.”  To chemists, balanced reactions can be read as sentences communicating information about how reactants yield products, or, more poetically, “statements describing a chemical tale.”  

“Relevant math skills are /
Termed stoichiometry. /
Learn these techniques: / 
On assessments, prevail!”
The use of balanced reactions for quantitative applications is called stoichiometry.  Using a balanced reaction, a chemist can predict information about the mass or moles of a reactant or product of interest, given data about a different chemical species involved in the same reaction.  

As with some other poems posted here, this one is written in a teacher’s voice. The second half of the double dactyl exhorts students to learn the skills of balancing reactions and using them for stoichiometric calculations, so that they can succeed on assessments such as homework and exams! The first year of chemistry coursework provides an introduction to a range of such techniques. 

STEM Education Poetry

Table Setting

“Chem classrooms: distanced,
Throughout fall semester.
The desks and the lectern,
Remote; these are missed. 
Note, though, some ‘furniture’
Still omnipresent: the
Chart periodic— key 
Table— persists.”

The 14 September 2020 Twitter poem is one that immediately places itself somewhere in the 2020-21 span, discussing more of the unusual circumstances of the academic year than any chemical principle of interest.  

“Chem classrooms: distanced, /
Throughout fall semester. /
The desks and the lectern, /
Remote; these are missed.”
My introductory chemistry courses had high enrollments in Fall 2020, so the class format I chose involved required, online lectures supplemented by optional, in-person discussion sessions that could allow for easier social distancing.   It was challenging to know how to approach the autumn term, and no modality was obviously perfect.  However, I aimed for a blend of communicating information thoroughly and flexibly, while still including chances for in-person discussions and clarifications with students interested in those opportunities.  

That meant, though, that the traditional classroom furniture items (“the desks and the lectern”) weren’t used regularly in the same way, and so “remote, these [were] missed.”  

“Note, though, some ‘furniture’/
Still omnipresent: the /
Chart periodic— key /
Table— persists.” 
The last four lines of this poem point out that any chemistry classroom, in any modality, will contain a piece of furniture, albeit a metaphorical one.  This is highlighted by the description of the “chart periodic— key table”: an allusion to the Periodic Table of Elements.  

This is one of several poems written last autumn where the use of the double-dactyl rhythm falls short compared to the true structure of a double dactyl.  That failing is particularly pronounced in this poem; the structure still looks quite awkward to me.  However, this rhythmic form was a fun change from the limericks of 2019; further, it was intriguing how different types of poem ideas came to mind through this academic autumn than in the last one, with the sounds of the dactylic feet more pronounced than the anapestic feet of the limerick

STEM Education Poetry

Word Choice

“Chemistry’s challenges:
Math-centric, too;
Order accrues.”

The 7 September 2020 poem was another “macroscopic” one, looking at some of the big-picture properties of chemistry as a discipline.  It sums up many of the challenges seen in introductory chemistry courses.

“Chemistry’s challenges: /
Nomenclatorial; /
Configurational; /
Math-centric, too; /
Terminological; /
As I’ve alluded to in a few of the recent posts, many of the double-dactyl poems were inspired by identifying a specific “double-dactyl” word itself: one that has six syllables.  That trend reaches its zenith in this poem, with five of the eight total lines in the poem using such words! 

Four lines allude to specific challenges in learning chemistry via double-dactyl descriptors.  “Nomenclatorial” encompasses the complex naming schemes found throughout the branches of chemistry. “Configurational” refers to the necessity of learning to see molecules in three dimensions and consider their shapes (configurations). “Terminological” summarizes the immense challenge of approaching any complex disciplinary vocabulary, with all its specific terms and definitions. “Diagrammatical” addresses the practice of learning to read and use informative diagrams/depictions interchangeably with words and equations (e.g., a chemical mechanism or a potential energy surface).  

The “math-centric” designation does not involve a double-dactyl word but is another major part of learning chemistry: learning to efficiently use and interpret a wide variety of calculations, graphs, and formulas.

“Disciplinarily, /
Order accrues.”
The last two lines involve one more double-dactyl word, with “disciplinarily,” and then a play on words: contrasting the familiar phrase “chaos ensues” with one of the biggest goals of disciplinary communication and conventions: “Order accrues.”  Taking an introductory course in any subject involves an introduction to the lens via which that discipline organizes and interprets information about the world. 

Science Poetry

Process Poem

“Start by observing, then
Ask informed question and
State a hypothesis;
Then test away,
Findings might verify
(Or ‘back to drawing board’
Also might say…).”

I’ll return here in the autumn semester to the routine of weekly posts in which I provide additional context (“translations”) for the poems I’ve posted on Twitter in previous months. The 31 August 2020 poem summarized the scientific method in double dactylic rhythm.   

“Start by observing, then /
Ask informed question and /
State a hypothesis; /
Then test away, /

The specific details of the scientific method are listed in different ways by different sources, but major commonalities persist.  The method is driven by observations, which lead to posing a question with a tentative explanatory answer called a hypothesis.  That hypothesis can predict findings; those predictions can be tested via experiments.  (The presence of “experimentally” on a list of double-dactyl-friendly, six-syllable words prompted this particular poetic endeavor.)  

“Findings might verify /
(Or ‘back to drawing board’ /
Also might say…).”

The final few lines emphasize another aspect of the scientific method: its iterative nature.  Experiments can provide evidence (data, results, conclusions) in support of a hypothesis’s predictions (“findings might verify”), or they can provide evidence that does not support those predictions. In the latter case, a scientist would refine the hypothesis, design a new experiment, and try again: “back to [the] drawing board.”  

As a sidenote, another vocabulary term often introduced alongside the scientific method is “theory.”  A scientific theory is a explanation that has withstood many instances of rigorous testing from the scientific community; the scientific definition of “theory” is different than the everyday definition.  (One valuable metaphor I’ve heard used is that of a map: a theory connects complex information in our understanding of a particular subject into an organized format. The merit of the theory can be evaluated on the basis of the “geographical information” it provides.)

The resources linked herein provide much more detailed and informative discussions of the nature and history of the scientific method!  However, this does seem a fitting topic for the first poem “translation” of this new semester.  

STEM Education Poetry

Changing Focus

Consider the habit creative:
An int’resting step meditative.
STEM tales anecdotal
Can change the length focal 
And show picture more illustrative.  

I occasionally teach a general education seminar on creativity in science.  In preparation, it’s been interesting to read more widely about some of the processes and techniques that inform discovery and innovation across disciplines.  I recently read a classic in the field, Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, for the first time.  This poem reflects on Tharp’s presentation of “focal length” as a creative concept, connecting it to some ideas about STEM education.    

Consider the habit creative: /
An int’resting step meditative.
Long before I read The Creative Habit, I had seen it cited many places.  It’s immensely inspiring and insightful: discussing Tharp’s own practice as a choreographer; bringing in stories from other visual and performing artists.  In reading, I noticed echoes from other discussions of creativity that I’ve encountered: the importance of a routine; the usefulness of metaphors; the role of so-called “luck.”  (With respect to the last, Tharp writes, “You don’t get lucky without preparation,” a similarly succinct version of Pasteur’s “Chance favors the prepared mind.”) 

One idea I hadn’t encountered before Tharp’s book was the concept of focal length in an artistic context.  She writes, “I often think in terms of focal length, like that of a camera lens.  All of us find comfort in seeing the world either from a great distance, at arm’s length, or in close-up.  We don’t consciously make that choice.”  She describes Ansel Adams’s panoramic photography, Jerome Robbins’s observer-centered choreography, and Raymond Chandler’s detailed character profiles as examples, respectively, of each.  She points out that it’s rare for artists to move between different focal lengths: “[W]e focus best at some specific spot along the spectrum.”    

STEM tales anecdotal /
Can change the length focal / 
And show picture more illustrative.  
This “focal length” concept is an immensely useful mental model that could likely transfer across all disciplines; as it pertains to STEM, I found the discussion fascinating in multiple ways.  

First, the three focal lengths interestingly parallel the three perspectives of Johnstone’s Triangle in chemistry education.  To my view, Tharp’s “great distance” and Johnstone’s macroscopic perspective easily align, with their focus on the big picture: for a chemist, what could we see in the lab, regarding a sample’s behavior?  So too do Tharp’s “close-up” and Johnstone’s particulate-level perspective: zooming in to see the behavior of specific atoms and molecules in a sample.  The third is a less obvious comparison, but I consider Tharp’s “arm’s length” view alongside Johnstone’s symbolic perspective; chemical notation often provides a mechanism via which a scientist can more objectively consider and communicate their findings. (An interesting tension comes up with the observational scale: the big-picture view of a lab sample, to a chemist, is different from the bird’s-eye view of natural phenomena presented in Adams’s work.  However, the sense of “looking at something three potential ways,” as well as the acknowledgement that we are generally more comfortable with one of the ways than the others, would likely resonate for students; both points certainly ring true for me.)  

The second takeaway connects more directly to Tharp’s actual meaning, considering how different types of writing about science align with these different focal lengths.  For instance, even while I expect that most textbook authors see their primary goal as communication, rather than artistry, we can still see Tharp’s focal lengths at work in such writing.  Many textbooks’ chapters begin with sweeping discussions of chemical principles in nature (e.g., discussing the environmental and meteorological chemistry of the atmosphere as an introduction to gas chemistry), before moving to the technical discussion of the atomic and molecular behaviors under consideration and the symbolic conventions used to communicate those behaviors.   

I note Tharp’s point that artists, including writers, tend to excel more at one of the focal lengths than the others. When it comes to communicating science via a written form, we scientists are generally most adept at and comfortable with the “arm’s length” vocabulary that we’ve spent years learning.  (I’d be interested to analyze my written lecture-note handouts versus my spoken in-class explanations, for instance; I’m confident the former resources are far more technical/detached than the latter.)  This aligns with the Hope Jahren interview that I referenced a few posts ago: it’s “breaking the rules” to talk about science without the layer of technical terminology, and the most precise vocabularies we can use are our equations and jargon… which are generally the most off-putting to any non-specialist, a classification that includes new students.

For my own part, it’s been challenging but most worthwhile to try out other focal lengths through these poems and essays over the past few years; I have learned a great deal about the big-picture stories in my own discipline, and I often find that students respond to those additional contexts. It is always striking, though, how much more effort it takes to explain a concept well in words than to write the corresponding equation. The focal-length concept is an interesting rationale to consider there: I’ve trained for many, many years with one; it makes sense that I need to work harder at the others.

Finally, the third connection aligns best with the verse’s rhyme.  I think of studying for exams and considering complex subject matter; it’s striking how moving to a longer focal length often helps contextualize the shorter-focal-length tasks.  Practicing piano scales makes more sense when we see how these manifest themselves in musical pieces; learning the nuances of skeletal drawings becomes more purposeful when we understand their efficiency in communicating complex organic chemistry knowledge.  Remembering the contributions of multiple scientists to their disciplines is simpler when we can consider the story of a theory’s development over time: “STEM tales anecdotal / Can change the length focal.”  Concept maps and other metacognitive techniques put these principles into practice directly (often resulting in an actual “picture more illustrative”!), and focal length is an efficient metaphor that I will remember, as well.  


And with that– speaking of a change in focus– I’ve really enjoyed working on these longer pieces for a few weeks, but I’ll now take a few weeks away from posting here, to prepare for the start of classes more deliberately. When the fall term begins, I’ll aim to post at least once a week, translating some of last year’s Twitter poems. It’s a bit daunting to consider a return to routines, after the challenges of the past two academic years, and it will be fun to include some informal writing in the autumn semester.