Science Poetry

Duly Noted

“The crucial first step: observation,
In the process of science vocations.   
Finding favor with chance,
Prepared minds will advance
Into questions; experimentation.”   

The next chemistry-themed poem from NaPoWriMo 2020 was posted on 14 April 2020 and highlighted a quote from Louis Pasteur, in the context of the scientific method.  

“The crucial first step: observation, /
In the process of science vocations.”
The scientific method (a.k.a. “the process of science vocations,” periphrastically) is complex and, in actual practice, defies the easy categorization that leads to many science fair posters!  However, some universal themes can be identified.   One is the centrality of the “crucial first step” of observation.      

“Finding favor with chance, /
Prepared minds will advance /
Into questions; experimentation.”     
Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) was a renowned scientist whose insights and interests spanned many fields, including chemistry and microbiology.  In a lecture at the University of Lille, he once stated: “In the fields of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.”  The third line here is a reframing of his famous quote to fit the limerick form (the Twitter poem cited him via hashtag).    

Scientific history contains many seemingly serendipitous “aha” moments that can be framed cinematically in retrospect.  Even within this website’s limited space, for instance, I’ve mentioned several such stories.  However, as Pasteur points out, each of these moments rests on a foundation of years of preparation.  If the observer did not have the prior knowledge to frame their observation via a theoretical context, or to communicate with other collaborators who could, the moment would pass idly by.          

The last three lines of the poem emphasize that both the observation and the knowledge to put that observation into context are vital prerequisites for other universal steps of the scientific method: asking a question, forming a testable hypothesis (one that empirical data can either support or disprove), and then exploring that hypothesis via experimentation.       

Science Poetry

Light Verse

“The substance of print photochemical...
Cyanotype’s image, accessible;
Its process is fated
When illuminated
By sunlight steadfast: print indelible.”

The 12 April 2020 post returned to the main form from the 2019 project, attempting to illustrate a chemical principle in the five lines of a limerick.  

“The substance of print photochemical… /
Cyanotype’s image, accessible”
The first line introduces the theme of this poem: photochemistry, a term which refers to reactions caused by light.  In an artistic context, this type of reaction can be used to create a photochemical print.  Many different types of these prints exist; one is called the cyanotype for the cyan color it achieves.  These first two lines were intended to emphasize sunlight’s crucial role in creating a photochemical image on a photosensitive surface.  

“Its process is fated /
When illuminated /
By sunlight steadfast: print indelible.”
A photochemical print process generally achieves a permanent image through three steps: first, photosensitizing a surface (creating a surface that can react with sunlight); second, exposing that surface to sunlight to achieve that reaction; third, fixing the image on the surface to ensure its permanence.     

For cyanotypes, the photosensitive surface is prepared by mixing potassium ferricyanide [K3[Fe(CN)6] and ferric ammonium citrate ((NH4)5[Fe(C6H4O7)2]) together, in a process devised by  Sir John Herschel in 1842.  If paper is painted with this mixture and then dries, its resulting surface is a yellowish color.  When exposed to sunlight, the print turns a bluish color wherever light hits it, and a stencil or object can be used on the print to create a negative image.  After the reaction is done and the remaining photosensitive mixture (any excess reactant) is rinsed away, then the photochemical print deepens to a cyan color by oxidizing: reacting with the oxygen in the air.  

The last three lines of the poem focus on the second step in detail; the overall process ultimately leads to a “print indelible.” 

Science Poetry

Total Synthesis

Deftly, inventively,
Percy L. Julian 
(Born on this date in 1899)
Works at his lab bench with
Techniques organic on
Synthetic design.  

The 11 April 2020 Twitter poem celebrated the birthdate of Percy Julian, an organic chemist who made key insights into the structures and syntheses of many important compounds.  The same caveats I’ve used with respect to both structure and content in the last few entries certainly apply here as well.  While the metric feet are dactylic, this poem is not a true double dactyl, since it consists of seven lines rather than eight.  Moreover, Percy Julian’s story deserves much more attention than this brief verse.  In particular, I’ve mentioned the excellent NOVA episode “Forgotten Geniuselsewhere in this space and would echo that recommendation here.    

“Deftly, inventively, /
Percy L. Julian /
(Born on this date in 1899)”
Percy Lavon Julian (1899- 1975) was an organic chemist who developed several innovative synthetic routes, “deftly [and] inventively” identifying laboratory-based pathways to natural compounds known to be medicinally valuable.  Julian was the first Black chemist named to the National Academy of Sciences and was a civil rights advocate throughout his career.        

“Works at his lab bench with /
Techniques organic on /
Corticosteroids’ /
Synthetic design.”

In 1935, Julian worked with his research colleague Josef Pikl to synthesize physostigmine: a compound known for its value in the treatment of glaucoma. Physostigmine had been previously available only from the Calabar bean.  Given the relative scarcity of the natural source, it was not used as widely as a medication as it could have been if it were synthetically available: if it could be made in a lab.  

Since the natural compound had been isolated previously (and its structure was thus known), Julian developed the “total synthesis” of physostigmine: a complete route via which a chemist could start from materials available in the laboratory and arrive at the correct target compound.  Julian tested the properties of the compound synthesized in the lab against the known properties of the natural compound to verify that the synthesis was successful.  This was a momentous achievement; the laboratory at DePauw University at which Julian developed the synthesis was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark.  

Physostigmine’s total synthesis was only one of many innovative pathways that Julian developed in his career.  His work increased the accessibility and affordability of several medicinally important compounds, many of which could be classed as “corticosteroids” (a term that lends itself particularly well to dactylic meter!).

Science Poetry

Split Decision

“Readily, steadily, 
Physicist Meitner: 
Lise walks with her nephew 
Through wintertime snow;  
Her mental mission 
Elucidates fission
In reaching objective truth, 
Seeking to know.” 

This entry will revisit the next of the Twitter poems from NaPoWriMo 2020; this one was posted 10 April 2020.  It summarizes a moment from scientific history, when physicists Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch had a crucial insight that famously occurred during a winter walk.

While this poem is not a true double dactyl (it lacks the characteristic single line composed of a six-syllable word), it echoes aspects of the form.    

“Readily, steadily, /
Physicist Meitner: /
Lise walks with her nephew /
Through wintertime snow…”  
Lise Meitner (1878-1968) made enormous contributions to the studies of radioactivity and nuclear physics in the twentieth century; her story is far too impressive to acknowledge in eight lines.  This poem highlights a single moment from her phenomenal career.  

In the early twentieth century, scientists explored many aspects of atomic structure.  Meitner, a theoretician, collaborated with experimentalists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann.  She left their Berlin lab and Nazi Germany in 1938, as she was of Jewish ancestry.  Meitner corresponded with Hahn and Strassmann as the long-distance collaboration continued.  In one letter, Hahn and Strassman reported that, when they bombarded uranium with neutrons, they were detecting barium, suggesting that the uranium atom was somehow breaking down into lighter elements. 

During a Christmas Day walk, Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch envisioned a mechanism via which this atom-splitting process could feasibly begin.  They used Albert Einstein’s equation E = mc2 to quantitatively bolster their hypothesis, relating the mass lost by the chemical sample to the energy required for the process.  

“Her mental mission /
Elucidates fission /
In reaching objective truth, / 
Seeking to know.” 
Frisch worked in Niels Bohr’s laboratory in Copenhagen; when Frisch reported the illuminating conversation, Bohr responded: “What idiots we have been!”  Meitner and Frisch named the splitting process “fission,” in their subsequent paper in Nature.

The last lines here pay tribute to a quote from Meitner:

“Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity; it teaches people to accept reality, with wonder and admiration, not to mention the deep joy and awe that the natural order of things brings to the true scientist.”

Science Poetry

Essay Assayed

Chemistry’s narratives:
Little acknowledged, but
Polyglot field stems from
Ancestry vast.
Alchemy, history,
Physics, geography—
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 /
Ancestry vast.
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.  

Alchemy, history,
Physics, geography—
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.  

Science Poetry

On All Counts

“Constantly, consciously,
A. Avogadro will 
Simplify chemistry’s
Math rigmarole,
Working through various
Calcs with his number
Defining the mole.”

This next double dactyl poem, posted on 9 April 2020, blended some historical information about Italian chemist Amedeo Avogadro with some descriptions of the uses of a scientific constant later named in his honor.   

“Constantly, consciously, /
A. Avogadro will /
Simplify chemistry’s /
Math rigmarole.”  
Amedeo Avogadro (1776-1856) examined the relationship of the number of molecules in a gas sample to the volume of that sample, determining that samples with more molecules occupied greater volumes, assuming constant temperature and pressure.  This is true regardless of what the molecules themselves are.  We can see this in the relationship of the variables n (number of moles, which is related to number of molecules) and V (volume) in the ideal gas law: pV = nRT.  Avogadro’s Law, specifically, is often written as V1/n1 = V2/n2.  An important constant used by chemists, Avogadro’s Number, was ultimately named in Avogadro’s honor, but it would take several more decades for this term to be defined by French scientist Jean Baptiste Perrin.   

In terms of the poetic language used here, Avogadro’s work delved into varied quantitative aspects of chemistry, “simplify[ing]” the subject’s “math rigmarole,” and the number named for him is a constant.      

“Working through various /
Stoichiometrical /
Calcs with his number /
Defining the mole.”
As has been discussed elsewhere in this space, Avogadro’s Number is 6.022 x 10^23 “per mole”: 6.022 x 10^23 is the number of particles of a chemical species in one mole of that species.  The scale of this number allows conversions between the particulate and macroscopic levels.

(The second portion of the poem veers into fiction, since Avogadro himself would not have used Avogadro’s Number, but it was too hard to resist using the double-dactyl word of “stoichiometrical” in one of these poems, once I saw a pertinent list of such words and realized that this chemical term would likewise qualify.)   

Science Poetry

Air of Mystery

“Skillfully, quill-fully:
Madame Lavoisier,
Translating chemistry, 
Husband at side…
Pair works in tandem;
Dephlogisticated air
Named now as oxygen,

The 8 April 2020 poem was another scientific biography in shorthand, recounting a famous discovery of the Lavosiers (Antoine and Marie-Anne Lavoisier), two landmark figures in the history of chemistry.      

“Skillfully, quill-fully: /
Madame Lavoisier, /
Translating chemistry, / 
Husband at side…”
Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-1794) is renowned as a major figure in the Chemical Revolution: the shift of chemistry towards more systematic investigations.  Often mentioned as a sidenote in chemical histories is the fact that his wife, Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier (1758-1836) was herself a scientist; indeed, she translated the scientific documents that facilitated many of her husband’s discoveries (presumably, with a quill!).  This seems worthy of more than a passing comment, and this poem attempts to address that humorously.      

“Pair works in tandem; /
Dephlogisticated air /
Named now as oxygen, /
The Lavoisiers’ chemistry insights were many; this poem focuses on one.  The phlogiston theory had been the prevailing understanding of combustion prior to the Lavoisiers’ work.  This theory postulated that combustible materials contained phlogiston, which was released when they burned.  Several scientists, among them English chemist Joseph Priestly, used the phlogiston theory to rationalize aspects of combustion.  The Lavoisiers, through a series of rigorous quantitative experiments, showed that combustion was instead explained by the oxygen theory: when a sample reacts with oxygen, it undergoes combustion, yielding an oxidized product.  

What Joseph Priestly had isolated and referred to as “dephlogisticated air” was thus clarified to be “oxygen,” and the element was named as such by Antoine Lavoiser.  This chemical insight was aided greatly by the work of Marie-Anne Lavoisier, who had the scientific knowledge and language fluency to translate key research articles into French so that her husband could read them.   

The compelling story of oxygen’s isolation and characterization has been told in much greater detail by other writers!  These lines focus on the unique chemistry of the Lavoisiers themselves, highlighting their collaborative research process.  

Science Poetry

Routine Revelations

“Ceaselessly, evenly,
Maria Mitchell is
Sweeping the heavens:
Sights comet’s display.    
Other discoveries
Cited from formulas:
Nature expresses
True laws; hymns of praise.”

The 7 April 2020 Twitter poem provided a brief homage to Maria Mitchell, whose career included a variety of international accolades for her work as a scientist (she was the first American woman to be a professional astronomer), and whose legacy as a science educator is likewise profound.       

“Ceaselessly, evenly, /
Maria Mitchell is /
Sweeping the heavens: /
Sights comet’s display…”
Maria Mitchell lived from 1818-1889; though her interests spanned many academic disciplines, astronomy was her primary field.  Her family home in Nantucket included a telescope, because her father was an amateur astronomer, and her daily routine included “sweeping the skies,” using the telescope to search the heavens for observations.  The double-dactyl adverb choices of “ceaselessly” and “evenly” were intended to highlight this constant dedication to her astronomical studies.  Before she turned 30, Mitchell discovered a comet that was ultimately named in her honor.  In the latter part of her life, Mitchell was the first person named to the faculty at the newly-founded Vassar College, where she taught for two decades.    

“Other discoveries /
Cited from formulas: /
Nature expresses /
True laws; hymns of praise.”
Mitchell’s passion for science was complemented by her interest in religion and in other fields, and the last four lines here reframed one of her most famous quotes: “Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God.”  

In finishing this poem, I had no shortage of quotes from which to choose!  In another of her most famous writings, Mitchell addressed the creative nature inherent in the scientific process, stating: “We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.”  

The juxtaposition of her daily “sweeping” routine with the eloquent imagination inherent in Mitchell’s writing is one I find compelling, as a testament to a lifetime spent in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and this short poem attempts to highlight that.     

Science Poetry

Being Spontaneous

“Quietly, mightily,
Josiah Willard Gibbs
Formulates concepts for 
STEM fields galore. 
Physical, chemical
Tools: spontaneity 
Can be explored.”

Not all of the April 2020 poems were chemistry-focused, so I’ll shift ahead to the next one that was, posted on 6 April 2020.  As highlighted in the hashtags, this was the first poem in a week of “Twitter bios,” in which short biographies of scientists were presented in the double-dactyl poetic form.  In this stringent form, one of the lines should be a single word that is a double dactyl in itself.  While not all of the poems from this week managed this, this first one did, highlighting “thermodynamical” in the sixth line.   

“Quietly, mightily, /
Josiah Willard Gibbs /
Formulates concepts for / 
STEM fields galore.”
Josiah Gibbs was a scientist who made enormous contributions to several scientific fields, “formulat[ing] concepts for STEM fields galore.”   One of his most famous papers was “On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances”; however, his choice of journal was an obscure one (Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences), which meant it took several years for the impact of his important work to reach an appropriately wide audience!  The two adverbs of choice for the double-dactyl structure attempted to highlight this, via the combination of “quietly” and “mightily.”  

“Physical, chemical /
Thermodynamical /
Tools: spontaneity 
Can be explored.”
Gibbs’s work was fundamental to the field of chemical thermodynamics, and several equations and concepts bear his name.  The most famous of these is likely the Gibbs Free Energy, represented with a capital G.  The Gibbs Free Energy is a state function, and the change in this quantity for a given chemical reaction can be quantified (Delta G, or 𝛥G), by taking the free energy of the products minus the free energy of the reactants.  If 𝛥G has a negative sign, it means the reaction will proceed spontaneously (naturally).  

This is a particularly useful quantity for chemists because it defines spontaneity at constant temperature and pressure.  Moreover, it allows chemists to discern whether a process will be spontaneous by considering the system (reaction) alone; this is often more convenient than directly using the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which also defines spontaneity but requires consideration of both a system and its surroundings to do so.     

Science Poetry

Intensive Training

“A chemist considers attentively
That a property’s named as ‘intensive’; sees
How the attribute meant
Relies NOT on extent.
(Definition denotes independency.)”  

The 4 April 2020 limerick addressed a determination that is often seen in early chapters of introductory chemistry textbooks: classifying whether a property of a given sample is intensive or extensive.  Describing matter precisely is a consistent goal in General Chemistry coursework, and this is one important type of such descriptions.    

“A chemist considers attentively /
That a property’s named as ‘intensive’…”
The extensive/intensive classification of properties is deceptively simple; I often notice in grading that such questions have been more challenging than I intended.  To analyze these topics, it’s thus helpful to “consider attentively.” In this poem’s hypothetical scenario, a chemist will be deciding whether or not a given property is intensive.  

“…Sees/ How the attribute meant /
Relies NOT on extent. /
(Definition denotes independency.)”  
Intensive properties, which do not vary with the amount of a substance, are often most easily classified in opposition to extensive properties, which do vary with the amount of a substance.  

For a specific example, we can imagine we have a sample of ten grams of water at room temperature, then further imagine that we divide that sample in half.  Each half of the original sample contains five grams of water; each half of the original sample is at room temperature.  Mass, then, is an extensive property: each half-sample has one-half the mass of the total sample.  Temperature is an intensive property: it is the same for the total sample and each half-sample. 

The mnemonics I share with students are two-fold.  First, I remind them that an extensive property relies on the “extent” of the sample; second, I note that an intensive property is independent of the amount of the sample, noting the similar prefixes.   

In this poem, after the chemist has “considered attentively,” they correctly conclude that the property is indeed intensive.  Here, “the attribute meant / [r]elies NOT on extent”: the property described is independent of amount.  Further, they remember that the definition of an intensive property “denotes independency.”