Science Poetry

Poetic Pause

“Through poetic April prolific,
In verses with vocab specific:
Each day’s iteration,
Chem communication,
With focus on rhyme scientific.”  

The 30 April 2021 limerick wound down another National Poetry Writing Month, and it seems a good place to pause for a few weeks at the end of this spring semester, as well.  

“Through poetic April prolific, /
In verses with vocab specific…”

The National Poetry Writing Month routine has continued to be a rewarding process since the first year I attempted it in 2019.  After many years of learning “vocab specific” as part of my chemistry training, it has been a fun challenge to turn those terms into more creative writing, hearing the metric feet inherent in the jargon.  This continued again in April 2022, and I will look forward to expanding on those verses here in the 22-23 academic year.    

“Each day’s iteration, /
Chem communication, /
With focus on rhyme scientific.”  

This is a bit of an oversimplification, as I note that not every poem from these April routines is truly chemistry- or science-focused; several focus on interdisciplinary overlaps, or springtime, or the unusual circumstances of these past few years.  However, the majority “focus on rhyme scientific,” and I’ve written elsewhere of the value of the iterative routine, in this way.  

As with last summer, I will take a few weeks off from these posts, then plan to spend some time in July on some more expansive essays and themes. 

Science Poetry

Wordplay in Three Acts

Test tubes and beakers and
Flasks volumetric;
Pipettes and burets and 
Stir bars magnetic.  
Mortars and pestles and
Stands with their rings–
These are a few of my favorite things.” 

“It’s not the chair (the most stable),
But other conformer, you’ll denote;
Write down, write down, 
Write down, write down
The cyclohexane form: boat.”  

Greenish-blue shade of patina
On copper’s once-brown surface,
Caused by air’s action:
Outward consistence 
Will change its color,
A redox instance…

The Twitter posts from 19 April 2021, 20 April 2021, and 21 April 2021 were all of a similar theme: using lyrics from a famous musical number to illustrate a chemistry-related concept.  Since the meaning of each is relatively one-note (ha), I’ll address them all briefly in a single post.  

Test tubes and beakers and
Flasks volumetric;
Pipettes and burets and 
Stir bars magnetic.  
Mortars and pestles and
Stands with their rings–
These are a few of my favorite things.” 

The first poem takes after the rhyme scheme and itemized format of “My Favorite Things,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music.  It lists common pieces of lab equipment.  

It’s not the chair (the most stable),
But other conformer, you’ll denote;
Write down, write down, 
Write down, write down
The cyclohexane form: boat.”   

The second echoes the format of “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” from Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls.  Many molecules exist as multiple conformers: they can twist and bend in three-dimensional space, and these different shapes differ in terms of their energies (and thus stabilities).  This poem highlights two of the many conformers available to the molecule cyclohexane: the chair and the boat, depending on how the cyclic molecule appears to bend.  Of these two, the boat is the less stable conformer.  (This particular verse has a long set-up for a brief punchline!)  

Greenish-blue shade of patina
On copper’s once-brown surface,
Caused by air’s action:
Outward consistence 
Will change its color,
A redox instance…”

The last mimics “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita.  It describes a redox reaction available to copper, which exists in its elemental form as an orangish-brown metal, but can be oxidized to what’s called a patina, adopting a greenish-blue color (as seen via the Statue of Liberty).  The “outward consistence” of a copper sample will thus look different after the “redox instance,” which is caused by “air’s action,” given the oxygen within. 

Science Poetry

Celestial Navigation

Katherine Johnson, 
As mathematician,
Will orbits apprise:
Gifts analytic and
Genius logistic
Facilitate NASA’s paths
To, through the skies.” 

The 18 April 2021 Twitter biography celebrated the life of mathematician and scientist Katherine Johnson (1918-2020).  Johnson was one of the first Black women to work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and her multi-decade career there included support of multiple historic flights, including those of Alan Shepard and John Glenn.  

“Data-equatingly, /
Katherine Johnson, /
As mathematician, /
Will orbits apprise…”

Katherine Johnson was only 18 when she graduated summa cum laude from West Virginia State University, majoring in both mathematics and French. She began her career as a math teacher, but she is most well-known for her subsequent work at NASA as a “human computer” during the Space Race.  As such, she “data-equatingly” solved many complex calculations in support of mission launches, orbits, and re-entries.     

She would later note that her love of mathematics was there from childhood: “I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.”

“Gifts analytic and /
Genius logistic /
Facilitate NASA’s paths /
To, through the skies.” 

The recent movie Hidden Figures told Johnson’s story, along with those of two of her colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, during the time surrounding John Glenn’s orbit of the Earth in 1962; Glenn was the first American to complete an orbit.  

As recounted in that film, Glenn had asked that Johnson, specifically, verify the mathematical calculations surrounding his historic flight.  Johnson’s “gifts analytic and genius logistic” were central in this momentous step in American history.  Her career would continue with support of the Apollo moon landing and many other efforts until her retirement in 1986.  

Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2019.  NASA also recognized Johnson’s efforts, renaming a program in her honor and presenting her with one of their “Silver Snoopy” awards, an honor which is bestowed specifically by NASA astronauts for outstanding support of the space program.   

Science Poetry

Branching Statements

“Deducing, computing, 
Through science poetical…
A. Ada Lovelace’s 
Efforts accrue: 
Steps archetypical.  
Quests algorithmic;
Endeavors heuristic–
From her works, ensue.”

The 17 April 2021 Twitter biography described some of the myriad accomplishments of Countess Augusta Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), whose family tree is one of the most famously interdisciplinary in history.  

“Deducing, computing, /
Through science poetical… /
A. Ada Lovelace’s /
Efforts accrue:” 
Steps archetypical.”

Ada Lovelace’s father was poet Lord Byron, and her mother was mathematician Lady Byron.  While Lovelace is most famous for her work related to computer science, she also is noted for her discussions of the imagination needed to pursue science (the phrase “science poetical” is from her own writing).  Lovelace’s “efforts accrue[d]” in a wide variety of STEM fields throughout her life, as her path crossed with those of multiple scientists and academics in the 1800s.  (Interestingly, her tutor was Mary Somerville, whose own story was briefly told here via a similar essay a few weeks ago.)  

Lovelace is likely best-known for her collaboration with Charles Babbage, who designed the Analytical Engine, a precursor to the programmable computer.  Babbage asked Lovelace to translate an article related to his work from Italian to English: “Sketch of the Analytical Engine,” which had been written by Luigi Menabrea.  As part of this process, Lovelace published notes of her own; these notes are generally considered the first computer program (“steps archetypical”).    

“Quests algorithmic; /
Endeavors heuristic– /
From her works, ensue.”

Lovelace was able to imagine the wide array of possibilities that the Analytical Engine could accomplish, beyond arithmetic calculations alone to artistic applications, as well: a wide array of “quests algorithmic [and] endeavors heuristic.”  

Via an insightful comment that elegantly intertwined the artistic and analytic branches of her family tree, she stated: “We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.”  

Lovelace’s birthday is now commemorated as a holiday, celebrating women’s achievements in STEM, more generally. 

Science Poetry

Enzyme Catalysis

“Inventive, reflective—
Marie Maynard Daly 
Seeks routes mechanistic
For enzymes and cells;
Goals realizing while
Paths catalyzing for 
Students to follow 
Through future, as well.”

The 16 April 2021 Twitter biography briefly recounted the story of Marie Maynard Daly (1921-2003), who was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry in the USA.     

“Inventive, reflective— / 
Marie Maynard Daly /
Seeks routes mechanistic /
For enzymes and cells…”

Marie Maynard Daly completed her undergraduate work at Queens College and her master’s degree at New York University.  She then attended Columbia University to earn her doctorate degree, and her thesis was entitled “A Study of the Products Formed by the Action of Pancreatic Amylase on Corn Starch.”  Her dissertation research, completed in only three years, explored “routes mechanistic / [f]or enzymes,” as pancreatic amylase is an enzyme that can break down complex carbohydrates into glucose (sugar).  

Daly graduated from Columbia in 1947, then continued her biochemical research at multiple institutions: as a postdoctoral researcher at the Rockefeller Institute, then as a researcher and instructor at Columbia University, and ultimately as a faculty member at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where she taught for more than 25 years.  Her insights were widespread: investigating protein synthesis and illustrating the harmful effects of cholesterol, among many other studies.    

“Goals realizing while / 
Paths catalyzing for /
Students to follow /
Through future, as well.”

A catalyst can speed the rate of a chemical reaction by lowering its activation energy: the energetic barrier that must be overcome for a reaction to proceed.  An enzyme is a catalyst for a biochemical reaction, specifically.

Daly established a scholarship at Queens College in memory of her father, who had also studied chemistry but was unable to complete his degree due to lack of financial support. These last few lines thus highlight the way in which Daly helped students along their paths to graduation, breaking down barriers: “paths catalyzing for / students to follow / through future, as well.”  

Science Poetry

Science Alliance

“The findings of Somerville, Mary:
Relating the sciences, varied.
Her knowledge, collecting;
The STEM fields, connecting,
In textbook most extraordinary.”

The 15 April 2021 Twitter biography noted the myriad accomplishments of Mary Somerville, an accomplished researcher who published On the Connection of the Physical Sciences in 1858.  

“The findings of Somerville, Mary: /
Relating the sciences, varied.” 

Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was a gifted scientist and author; she wrote articles and books related to astronomy, physics, and other varied STEM fields.    

“Her knowledge, collecting; /
The STEM fields, connecting, /
In textbook most extraordinary.”

While Somerville wrote many books, her most famous text is likely the one cited in the introduction to this post: On the Connection of the Physical SciencesIt deliberately examines links and connections between scientific topics: defying disciplinary barriers and thus anticipating many of the challenges that still persist in STEM today.  

The book discusses such varied and accessible topics as the moon’s orbit, the processes of photography, and the vibrations of strings involved in music, as well as the underlying scientific concepts, processes, and patterns beneath all of these.  Somerville writes in the book’s introduction: “Science, regarded as the pursuit of truth, must ever afford occupation of consummate interest, and subject of elevated meditation… Our knowledge of external objects is founded upon experience, which furnishes facts; the comparison of these facts establishes relations, from which the belief that like causes will produce like effects leads to general laws.”   

Given the wide range of her academic interests, Somerville was the first person to ever be described via the word “scientist”; this was a term coined by her contemporary William Whewell (1794-1866) in describing Somerville’s varied interests, since job titles such as “astronomer” or “mathematician” alone were disciplinarily insufficient.  (Like Somerville, Whewell was a widely interested researcher, and he gave many useful neologisms to both STEM and the humanities.)

Somerville’s “textbook most extraordinary” is available online via Project Gutenberg

Science Poetry

Oil and Water

“Swiftly, synthetic’ly,
Alice Augusta Ball
Works towards seeds of the
Chaulmoogra trees;
Efforts invested yield
Oil’s ethyl ester and 
Thus a key treatment
To combat disease.”  

The 14 April 2021 Twitter poem was another biographical tribute.  This one celebrated the chemistry achievements of Alice Augusta Ball (1892-1916), who developed the first effective medical treatment for leprosy.  

“Swiftly, synthetic’ly, / 
Alice Augusta Ball /
Works towards seeds of the / 
Chaulmoogra trees…”

Alice Ball was a gifted researcher in synthetic organic chemistry.  She completed her undergraduate work at the University of Washington and soon after earned a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii (becoming both the first Black student and the first woman to do so).  She ultimately accepted a research position at Hawaii’s Kalihi Hospital, working with surgeon Harry Hollman on a treatment for leprosy.  It was known that chaulmoogra oil, derived from “seeds of the / [c]haulmoogra trees,” was a useful treatment for this disease.  However, the oil itself had several side effects.  It couldn’t be taken orally, as it made patients ill.  Moreover, the oil couldn’t be injected without causing unwanted blistering and pain; due to its viscous nature and water-insolubility, it would clump up under the skin.        

“Efforts invested yield /
Oil’s ethyl ester and /
Thus a key treatment /
To combat disease.” 

Ball determined that if the fatty acids in the chaulmoogra oil were converted to their ethyl esters, the medication would become water-soluble: able to dissolve in water; capable of traveling through and being absorbed by the body; avoiding the terrible side effects while remaining medically active.  This was a tremendous accomplishment, revolutionizing the treatment of leprosy.    

Tragically, Ball died soon after this discovery, at the age of 24.  Moreover, another chemist, Arthur Dean, continued her work without crediting her, publishing extensively on “Dean’s method” as a leprosy treatment.  

However, years later, the credit for Ball’s work was rightfully restored, and the pertinent technique is now known as Ball’s method.  The University of Hawaii celebrated Alice Augusta Ball Day earlier in 2022.         

Science Poetry

Landmark Achievements

“Scholar and mentor,
Prof. St. Elmo Brady:
His far-reaching teaching,
Key insights, perceives.
Chemical topics and
Goals spectroscopic will,
Landmarks achieve.”

The next Twitter biography poem, posted on 13 April 2021, celebrated St. Elmo Brady (1884-1966), who was the first Black chemist to earn a Ph.D. in the USA.  

“Scholar and mentor, /
Prof. St. Elmo Brady: /
His far-reaching teaching, /
Key insights, perceives.”

In 1916, St. Elmo Brady earned his doctorate from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), examining how substituent effects could impact carboxylic acids.  He spent much of his subsequent career establishing chemistry departments at multiple historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), including Tuskegee University, Howard University, Fisk University (his undergraduate alma mater), and Tougaloo College.  He impacted countless students through his mentoring efforts in teaching and scholarship.  

“Chemical topics and /
Goals spectroscopic will, /
Illuminatingly, /
Landmarks achieve.”

These last four lines commemorate just a few specific achievements from Brady’s outstanding career, centered around the theme of achieving landmarks.  As part of his work at both Fisk University and Howard University, Brady led efforts towards construction of new academic buildings. Moreover, during his tenure at Fisk University, Brady collaborated with UIUC to develop a research institute devoted to infrared spectroscopy, a technique which identifies “chemical landmarks” (functional groups) in chemical compounds through the use of infrared light (“illuminatingly,” to use a double-dactylic word).  Finally, in 2019, the American Chemical Society celebrated Brady’s achievements with the designation of a national historic chemical landmark, at UIUC.  

After Brady’s death, chemist Samuel Massie wrote an article in The Capital Chemist in 1967 in tribute to his colleague’s life and career.  He noted: “Brady not only built buildings and departments, he built men and women.  He was never too busy to listen to the problems of a student or fellow faculty member… Although he is gone as a person, his shadow remains… Truly the story of chemistry at four institutions is the lengthened shadow of a great teacher, friend and scholar.”


Reviewing the Literature

“Wistful and willful; see 
Beverly Cleary’s
Protagonists vivid,
Forever sincere—
Beezus; Ramona; a
Mouse, motorcycling; list 
Funny, true, dear.”

After the week of lab-centered light verse, the next week of NaPoWriMo 2021 was focused on “Twitter biographies”: short poems about the lives of scientists and writers.  The first was posted on 12 April 2021 and had a near-double-dactyl form.  It was posted on “Drop Everything and Read” Day, which is celebrated on author Beverly Cleary’s birthday.  

“Wistful and willful; see /
Beverly Cleary’s /
Protagonists vivid, /
Forever sincere…”

It was interesting in reading Beverly Cleary’s autobiography, long after I encountered her fiction books, to realize how many of the characters and scenarios she described in the latter were drawn from her own life.  That helped explain the vivid details behind so many of these classic scenes and stories!  

As stated above, this particular Twitter bio was posted on “Drop Everything and Read” Day, or “D. E. A. R.” Day.  Cleary’s most famous character, Ramona Quimby, celebrates the D.E.A.R. routine in Ramona Quimby, Age 8.  Ramona greatly enjoys reading books of her own for an hour in the midst of the busy school day (although she prefers to refer to it as the more sophisticated routine of “Sustained Silent Reading”).   

“Beezus; Ramona; a /
Mouse, motorcycling; list / 
Characteristic’ly /
Funny, true, dear.”

In addition to Ramona, I remember her sister Beezus, their neighbor Henry Huggins: humorous and heartfelt characters dealing with everyday scenarios.  Cleary also wrote wonderful stories about animal protagonists: The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Ribsy, Socks.  

Only a few of Cleary’s characters have names that lend themselves to the dactylic meter, so only a few are noted specifically here via verse. However, I could write at length about how these books have all inspired me in terms of my own reading and writing. In particular, Dear Mr. Henshaw was my first introduction to an epistolary novel and the interesting flexibility that that form provides.  

Cleary passed away just last year, at age 104, leaving a legacy of characters true-to-life, sympathetic, and inspiring: a “list / characteristic’ly / funny, true, [and] dear.”  

STEM Education Poetry

For the Record

“The product in flask: data, quotes, looks;
The time that each task, new or rote, took;
Stoich calcs and dilutions;
Key findings; conclusions; 
Next questions to ask… all in notebook.”

The 11 April 2021 limerick returned to one of my favorite themes, the chemistry lab notebook, which I’ve explored a few times in this space before!    

“The product in flask: data, quotes, looks; /
The time that each task, new or rote, took…”

In this particular poem, it was fun to build towards “notebook” as the final rhyme, then shape the remainder of the limerick around it.  This required some stretching of vocabulary, at times, but within reason, as is ideally clear by taking one line at a time.  

A chemist would record information about “the product in flask: data, quotes, looks.”  What is the product’s mass? Its melting point?  What statements would the chemist wish to record about the experiment?  What does the product look like?       

Another common record included in the notebook would be “the time that each task, new or rote, took.”  Each step in an experimental procedure is either a new attempt or a repeated (“rote”) one; further, it’s useful to know how long certain steps (heating under reflux, stirring, etc.) can take.  

“Stoich calcs and dilutions; /
Key findings; conclusions…” 

The “A” rhymes in this limerick (with its AABBA form) all build on “notebook,” while the “B” rhymes are a bit less forced.  The phrase “stoich calcs and dilutions” refers to the lab-focused mathematics completed in a lab notebook (theoretical yield and other stoichiometric calculations, M1V1 = M2V2, etc.).  Perhaps the most obvious things to highlight in a lab notebook are the “key findings [and] conclusions” from a given procedure.    

“Next questions to ask… all in notebook.”

The final line of the poem highlights the self-perpetuating nature of scientific research: what “next questions” do the conclusions of a given experiment invite?  Those creative reflections are also an important part of a procedural record.