April 2019 Limerick Project

Routine Maintenance

The Spring 2020 timing of this writing endeavor merits an epilogue of sorts.  The COVID-19 pandemic was in evidence elsewhere in the world from the limerick project’s start but did not affect my day-to-day responsibilities until mid-March.  By that point, I had been working on these brief essays for a while, scheduling each to post a few weeks after its writing.  

It was evident after spring break that my late-semester experience would be significantly different from my early-semester experience.  At the same time, I’d written “ahead” several blog entries, so that posts were scheduled through early April.  I was reluctant to edit those pieces.  I was likewise reluctant to interrupt what had become a diverting writing habit to focus on late-breaking, superfluous reporting on what it was like to shift abruptly to teaching chemistry remotely (in one, unsurprising word: difficult).    

Ultimately, I opted to continue staring resolutely at one STEM-themed limerick at a time, producing 280 (or so) words of explanatory prose about its five lines, with only occasional allusions to the surrounding temporal context.  What may have seemed like obtuse monotony was a considered response; I share here my rationale in case it would ever be useful to anyone else.   

A central theme of chemistry is the link between molecular structure and function.  Generally, chemists consider how adjustments to a molecule’s composition will impact its reactivity, but the same idea echoes across disciplines in resonant, moving ways.  (One such echo is Mrs. Whatsit’s beautiful discussion of the sonnet as a metaphor for one’s life in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time: “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.  What you say is completely up to you.”)   

Structure also enables function in terms of my writing.  The three constraints I described in the most recent entry (National Poetry Month, the Year of the Periodic Table, and Twitter’s character limit) together provided my 2019 project’s form, which in turn facilitated its inspiration.  This Spring 2020 exercise was likewise “periodic” in its own structure: returning to each daily theme from April 2019; building on each short poem with a slightly longer explanation.           

Along those lines, I will finish where this particular project began, with the Periodic Table of the Elements.  Mendeleev constructed his periodic table via an understanding of elements in two dimensions, as I wrote about in my initial limerick discussion several weeks ago: what are the elements’ weights (later refined as atomic numbers), and what are their chemical properties?  In this case, function informed structure: understanding the elements’ chemical behaviors helped Mendeleev to build his famous diagram.  

A few years ago, multiple medical emergencies struck my family simultaneously, and it has taken much of the intervening time to regain my equilibrium.  For many years, my academic research didn’t provide much solace; neither did unfocused writing.  But in the overlap of these two “dimensions” of chemistry and poetry, I finally found enough of a framework to yield a creative routine’s structure and purpose: a foothold with which to begin.  That practice has provided stability and function in this historically challenging spring, and I will continue with it in the weeks and months ahead. 

April 2019 Limerick Project

Theoretical Yield

“A frame for chem concepts, aesthetic, 
Was the goal of my April, poetic: 
A shift in perspective 
Through verses connective. 
Thus ends month’s endeavor, synthetic.”  

The 30 April 2019 limerick was the last in this particular project, which examined specifically the overlap of National Poetry Month and the International Year of the Periodic Table.  Though I’ve written several chemistry poems via the same Twitter account since last spring, this initial month was the most cohesive, both in focus and in form: a set of thirty limericks, examining the overlap of chemistry and poetry, five lines at a time.  

“A frame for chem concepts, aesthetic, / 
Was the goal of my April, poetic…”
This was a daunting project for me to start.  As I mentioned in the first entry on this website, creative writing has always been an interest of mine, but my academic writing, especially as it pertains to my courses, is primarily informative by design.  (Introductory chemistry material is challenging enough when presented in clearly written sentences.)    

However, April is National Poetry Month, and 2019 was UNESCO’s International Year of the Periodic Table.  The confluence of these two events, combined with the constraints of the Twitter format (280 characters maximum), provided enough inspiration and structure to begin: the “frame… aesthetic” alluded to in the first line.  

“A shift in perspective /
Through verses connective. /
Thus ends month’s endeavor, synthetic.”
The through-line of the limerick form— via “verses connective”—was particularly useful for me in this project.  First of all, the limerick is a brief poem: five lines, which never ran close to the 280-character limit (even as my number of hashtags increased!).  Second, since a limerick is by definition a type of light verse, its use helped me highlight these poems as primarily entertaining; this in turn alleviated my worries about their lack of technical precision.  Combined, these effects enabled me to focus on identifying concepts, stories, and techniques that I could describe in this format, looking for “shift[s] in perspective.” 

The concept of an “endeavor, synthetic” is another resonant one, with its complex and intertwined echoes for chemistry, language, and education.  This was a rewarding project, yielding a new understanding of how I can approach my subject, and I’ve enjoyed continuing similar efforts in the year since.  

April 2019 Limerick Project


‘ “We still don’t get ‘renaissance structures,’”
Said the students in moments past lecture.
Their phrasing, inverted,
To me then asserted
Historic’lly wondrous conjectures.’

Since the April 28 limerick was summarized a few days ago for Graduation 2020, this entry returns to the home stretch of my poetic project.  The 29 April 2019 limerick addresses an imaginative misphrasing that I’ve encountered a few times in teaching.

‘ “We still don’t get ‘renaissance structures,’” /
Said the students in moments past lecture…’ 

A common misstatement in General Chemistry is the use of “renaissance structures” for “resonance structures.”  (Presumably, this error would be characterized as some variant of spoonerism or mondegreen!)  

Resonance structures acknowledge the limitations of simple drawings in representing chemical reality.  Chemists use Lewis structures, or electron-dot structures, as a first step towards depicting molecular structures.  In certain cases, a molecule can exhibit resonance, which means that one single Lewis structure cannot fully depict the complexities of the molecule’s bonding.  In these cases, multiple resonance structures are drawn, and a chemist considers the true molecular structure to be an average of the resonance structures, also known as a resonance hybrid.    

Often, resonance constitutes a challenging concept, especially if students have not encountered it previously.  Moreover, I often notice that some of the best discussion in class arises at the close, in the few minutes when students ask questions in passing, before heading out the door.     

‘Their phrasing, inverted, /
To me then asserted /
Historic’lly wondrous conjectures.’

In several years of teaching, I have heard the “renaissance structure” description several times.  I always appreciate the flipped-syllable phrasing, which provides a diverting vision of complex Renaissance architecture… in the midst of my decidedly non-complex molecular drawings.  

“Resonance theory” arises in multiple contexts throughout the curriculum.  As with many scientific phrases, it exhibits an interesting duality: standing alone, it is an evocative phrase; in the chemistry context, it has a specific meaning.  I’ve attempted throughout this project to build on both aspects: balancing the poetic-sounding terms of my disciplinary vocabulary with information about their technical definitions.  

April 2019 Limerick Project

Dalton’s Theory

“A recurrent theme that’s oft taught in
Gen Chem 1 is the theory of Dalton.
In a chemical change,
Matter will rearrange:
One of key points presented each autumn.” 

In the 27 April 2019 limerick, I returned to discussing common themes of my introductory chemistry lecture course.  In this case, the subject is Dalton’s Atomic Theory.  John Dalton was an English scientist who completed many fundamental studies in chemistry, biology, and meteorology in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  

“A recurrent theme that’s oft taught in /
Gen Chem 1 is the theory of Dalton.” 

General Chemistry 1 introduces three perspectives on chemistry: the particulate-level (what are atoms and molecules in a chemical sample doing?); the macroscopic-level (what can we observe about that sample in the laboratory, as a result of the behaviors of the component atoms and molecules?); and the symbolic (how do we represent both of these levels via equations and other notation, to best communicate with other scientists?).  These three perspectives are summarized as Johnstone’s Triangle (or the chemistry triplet) and learning to translate among the three can be a challenge for students.  Dalton’s Atomic Theory is a common theme in General Chemistry 1 and highlights some links between each of the three “sides” of this triangle.     

“In a chemical change, / Matter will rearrange: /
One of key points presented each autumn.”

Dalton’s Atomic Theory is a set of statements about chemical behavior.  Several of these statements rationalized behaviors about chemical species that had already been observed by other scientists.  Others predicted behaviors that would later be observed, leading to the theory’s acceptance.  The theory rationalizes matter’s behavior (macroscopic perspective) through the concepts of atoms and compounds (particulate perspective).  The theory is generally presented as a set of multiple postulates, one of which states that a chemical reaction rearranges matter but does not create or destroy it.  This idea is a statement of the conservation of mass and is summarized by the last three lines of the limerick; further, it is only one of several “key points.”  These chemical changes are represented (symbolic perspective) with balanced chemical reactions, as described in the 3 April 2019 limerick.

April 2019 Limerick Project


“Within all the plant life arboreal,
Reactions— complex, inventorial—
Cause synthesis (photo);
Roots extending below,
Long relics of time immemorial.”

The last of the poem homages was published on 26 April 2019, a date on which the Friday of Earth Week and Arbor Day overlapped.  It took as its central image the famous setting from the first line of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Evangeline.” As with most of the poems in this sequence, the allusion was a surface one at best: the “forest primeval” simply seemed a fitting theme for Arbor Day!

“Within all the plant life arboreal, /
Reactions– complex, inventorial– /
Cause synthesis (photo)…”
In teaching my classes, I focus on simplified scenarios in which chemical reactions occur one at a time and can be easily tracked and understood.  In any real-world system, the underlying chemistry is multifaceted, consisting of multiple processes occurring in tandem (“reactions– complex, inventorial”).  Photosynthesis is the process by which trees and other plants (“the plant life, arboreal”… and otherwise) can convert the energy from sunlight into chemical energy; it has enormous implications for life on earth, including the generation of oxygen.  Describing photosynthesis comprehensively requires a large number of interconnected chemical reactions. 

“Roots extending below, /
Long relics of time immemorial.”

A reaction’s “timescale” defines how quickly it can occur.  Again, in teaching, I highlight reactions that occur over a scale of seconds to minutes; these can be easily monitored in a classroom environment.  However, reactions can occur much more slowly and much more quickly.  Scientists sum up these timescales with the use of metric prefixes: some processes can take months or years (megaseconds); others can occur in a billionth or a trillionth of a second (nanoseconds or picoseconds, respectively).  

Within a tree like an ancient sequoia, multiple timescales are impressively, simultaneously evident, given the trees’ massive scales and lifetimes through centuries, via these cascades of chemical reactions, continuously occurring in fractions upon fractions of seconds. In her outstanding memoir Lab Girl, Dr. Hope Jahren writes movingly about the chemistry and drama underlying botany: “No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root.”  Centuries later, far outpacing our own timescales, these “long relics” can persist. 

April 2019 Limerick Project

Structural Analysis

“The roles of the lab apparata,
Decode through the textbooks’ schemata—
E.g., microscope prudent
Evinces to students
Convictions of chemical data.”  

Returning to the week of poetic homages, the April 25 limerick borrows language from two of Emily Dickinson’s science-themed works: “‘Faith’ is a fine invention” and “The Chemical conviction.”   As with the 24 April post, the limerick merely uses wording from each of the original poems themselves, rather than attempting to navigate their complex themes.  In particular, this limerick adapts some of Dickinson’s spare and evocative phrasings to provide a poetic overview of scientific textbook illustrations.     

“The roles of the lab apparata, /
Decode through the textbooks’ schemata–”
To employ a metaphor from organic chemistry, the main rhymes in this poem were retrosynthesized from the target of the last line.  Retrosynthesis is a technique of thinking backwards that is useful in organic synthesis (building molecules). If we have a target molecule to make in the lab, we can think about taking it apart, piece by piece, one step at a time, until we are back to some easily accessible starting material.  E. J. Corey received the 1990 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for devising this technique.   

With a limerick, the familiar structure of both the poem itself (in terms of overall rhyme scheme: AABBA) and each line (anapestic meter) help to stipulate the vocabulary involved.  Here, since I was headed toward “convictions of chemical data” in the final line, lines one and two had to end in rhymes for “data,” and further, they had to center on similar themes and employ anapestic feet.  I settled on one actual word (“schemata”) to stand in for schematic drawings and one flawed Latin plural (“apparata,” where the correct plural of “apparatus” would also be “apparatus”!) to represent scientific instruments, in achieving the desired structure.  

Returning to the theme of this poem: these first two lines introduce the focus on textbook illustrations (“schemata”) as useful for understanding the purposes of lab instruments (“the roles of the lab apparata”).      

“E.g., microscope prudent /
Evinces to students /
Convictions of chemical data.”
The remainder of the poem is comparatively simple: once they are effectively guided by their lab manuals, students can gather data using instruments in the chemistry lab; one such instrument is a microscope.

April 2019 Limerick Project


“The stories of STEM can seem hidden
Under layers of vocab; forbidden.
Brave the terms and march on
Through the daunting jargon
To your narratives now to be written.”   

I will post my discussion of the 28 April 2019 limerick a bit early, before I backtrack to the 25 April 2019 poem and complete this project over the next few weeks.  This poem was written for Graduation Day 2019, and, were this a regular spring semester, Graduation Day 2020 would be soon underway.  This is, of course, not a regular spring semester, and so this essay is a good chance to commemorate this year’s class as well. (Given that I’m focusing on two years, I’ll give myself twice my normal word limit!) 

“The stories of STEM can seem hidden/
Under layers of vocab; forbidden…” 

I encounter most of my students in General Chemistry coursework, which are the largest lecture sections I teach.  General Chemistry (and indeed, any introductory course) can be difficult, as students simultaneously learn and apply a challenging disciplinary vocabulary.  I often regret that I cannot spend more time on what I was fascinated by as a student myself: the stories underlying science.  However, these courses must cover a wide range of concepts and calculations, allowing students to demonstrate the efficient mastery of challenging technical material.  These first two lines attempt to balance that tension: the stories are not a focus of introductory courses, but they are there.  

“Brave the terms and march on/
Through the daunting jargon/
To your narratives now to be written.”
I am reminded again of the difference between state and path functions.  A state function is one that we can fully analyze by knowing the initial and final states of a system: what were the conditions at the start, and what are the conditions at the end?  A path function is one for which we must know more about the intervening steps, to complete our analysis. 

“Imagine a mountain climber,” I’ve told countless students.  “They’re starting at the base of the mountain and climbing to the top.  Altitude is the state function: you can easily determine the height to which they’ve climbed and thus find the altitude.  Distance is the path function: they could climb directly up the mountain; they could take a winding route.  Until you know more about their path, you can’t report the distance they traveled.”   

After teaching students in their first-year General Chemistry courses, I rarely see most of them again before their senior-year events and commencement ceremonies.  These initially seem like chances to celebrate “state functions,” in many senses of that phrase!  We contrast the end of a campus journey with the beginning; we discuss the end of one chapter and the start of another.  The pomp and circumstance of graduation are themselves associated with occasions (functions, if you will…) of state.   

The last three lines of this poem, though, commemorate the path.  Over their four undergraduate years, students “brave the terms” of their disciplinary vocabularies to proceed to their own independent research and creative work.  The combined potential of the new stories that lie ahead, “the narratives now to be written,” is phenomenal: graduation ceremonies are dramatic to witness, but their substance and meaning are no less moving to consider this spring.  I shift in those lines to speaking directly to my former students, and I’ll close this essay the same way. 

Look at where you are; look at where you started.”  These lines are from the musical Hamilton, and they always remind me of the concept of… a state function!  This is certainly a day to remember your initial few moments on campus, and to celebrate your status now as graduates.  But I would add one more exhortation in 2020, on this unusual graduation day.  Please take some time to look back at these last seven weeks and to appreciate the significance of your accomplishment: the steepness of the slope you just scaled; your historic, remarkable path.  

April 2019 Limerick Project

Molecular Symmetry

“A task that invokes fearful symmetry: 
Form point groups from elements’ litanies. 
Planes and axes, inversions; 
These abstract immersions 
Unpack complex structures‘ consistencies.”

Continuing the week of poetic homages, the 24 April 2019 limerick used as its central theme a memorable phrase–fearful symmetry— from William Blake’s “The Tyger.”  

Symmetry is an important concept in chemistry, as many of the properties that molecules exhibit can be predicted from the types of symmetry displayed in their three-dimensional shapes.  (For this highly visual topic, I have relied on several outstanding resources constructed and written by many others, and I have provided several pertinent links to their much more detailed information.)     

A task that invokes fearful symmetry:/
Form point groups from elements’ litanies.”
Molecular symmetry is typically presented in advanced chemistry coursework.  It is complex, challenging, and rewarding; characterizing its associated tasks via Blake’s phrasing of “fearful symmetry,” in the first line, seems apt!     

The second line introduces pertinent vocabulary.  A molecule can contain different types of symmetry elements (separate from the periodic table’s definition!), which in turn represent particular symmetry operations.  For instance, a square has “four-fold rotational symmetry”: we can imagine repeatedly turning a perfect square 90 degrees clockwise; we’d achieve four equivalent, indistinguishable square shapes, in total.  We would denote this set of symmetry operations (the four rotations) with a symmetry element called a C4 proper axis; this is the axis around which the rotations occur.         

A list of all the elements exhibited by a given molecule (i.e., the “litany” of its symmetry elements) constitutes its symmetric designation: the point group of that molecule.    

“Planes and axes, inversions; / These abstract immersions /
Unpack complex structures‘ consistencies.”
Along with axes of rotation, internal mirror planes and centers of inversion are also types of symmetry elements.  Considering the symmetry of a molecule is a rigorous exercise and often requires a complex thought process: an “abstract immersion.”  For instance, an analysis of the molecule benzene, discussed previously, involves characterizing two dozen symmetry operations.  

Understanding a molecule’s symmetry provides a valuable introduction to its spectroscopic and geometric properties.  If two molecules are in the same point group, then even though they may be made up of completely different atoms, they will display similar behaviors in some respects; understanding their symmetries can help “unpack [these] consistencies.”         

April 2019 Limerick Project

Procedural Drama

“In chem lab, take measure for measure,
Lest errors comedic displeasure.
It can seem much ado;
Tempests sometimes ensue.
All that ends well, remember for lecture.”

The April 23 limerick was posted on William Shakespeare’s birthday; it joined a long list of “#HappyBirthdayShakespeare” hashtags in my Twitter timeline, all of these saluting different plays and sonnets.  For my own part, I wrote a brief acknowledgement of some of the major themes of chemistry labs, alluding to one title from Shakespeare’s bibliography per line.

“In chem lab, take measure for measure,/
Lest errors comedic displeasure.” 
In an introductory chemistry laboratory course, students are often reminded of the necessity of taking multiple measurements of whatever quantities are of interest: by doing so, they can complete more accurate calculations, and they can better understand potential sources of error in their experiments.  In the limerick’s lines, these big ideas borrow their phrasing from the titles of Measure for Measure and The Comedy of Errors, prompting students to keep good records and take multiple measurements, to avoid errors’ creating too much havoc.  (Errors of the comedic variety can be particularly frustrating!)  

“It can seem much ado; / Tempests sometimes ensue.”  
This emphasis on detail, repetition, and record-keeping can be frustrating to a new chemistry student.  Labs generally require three or more hours per week of procedural work, along with significant data analysis afterwards, to complete any necessary reports.  This longer time (relative to a traditional lecture course) provides the flexibility necessary to adjust to real-world difficulties as they arise.  Thus, using two more titles–  Much Ado About Nothing and The Tempest— the poem sums up two more characteristics: that labs initially seem focused on minutiae and that the occasional (seeming) disaster may sometimes strike.            

“All that ends well, remember for lecture.”
Lab experiments can bring to life the concepts discussed in lecture and, ideally, provide a memorable look at a previously abstract concept.  These parallels can be useful as students are studying for their exams, which are held in the lecture component of their chemistry classwork. The allusion to All’s Well That Ends Well sums up this hoped-for synergy, in the final line of the limerick. 

April 2019 Limerick Project

Earth Day

“Via STEM, we explore what’s attainable,
Our efforts towards world more sustainable.
We must seek to strive:
Find ways for Earth to thrive,
For ‘to yield’ would be act unexplainable.”  

In the week beginning with 22 April 2019, I changed my approach slightly, writing a set of five poems geared towards the American Chemical Society’s “Chemists Celebrate Earth Week” celebration, focusing on green chemistry and other efforts in environmental sustainability. The specific motto for 2019 was “Take Note: The Chemistry of Paper,” and this was enough motivation to bring in some direct allusions to some beloved poets and poems.  (After all, these poems were recorded on paper in their moments of inspiration!)    

Thus, in this limerick and the four following (from April 22-26, 2019), I alluded to famous poems or poetic works that could be read to address a scientific theme, paying appropriate tribute in the hashtags.  This first was written for Earth Day itself; the 22 April 2019 limerick echoes some of the words of a favorite poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.   

“Via STEM, we explore what’s attainable,/
Our efforts towards world more sustainable.”

The first two lines acknowledge the work underway by many scientists in efforts of sustainability: ecological and other interdisciplinary investigations of the complexity of our increasingly interconnected world.  

“We must seek to strive:/ Find ways for Earth to thrive,/
For ‘to yield’ would be act unexplainable.”  

The end of the limerick borrows from the closing of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:

“…tho’ / We are not now that strength which in old days/
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;/
One equal temper of heroic hearts,/
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

I referenced the famous final sequence of verbs (“to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”) in my last three lines, using Tennyson’s words in exhorting scientists never to give up in “seek[ing] a newer world.”       

It is challenging to write more than an explanation of the limerick’s verbiage.  I cannot share any academic expertise about Tennyson’s poem; it is simply one I cherish. That the poem ends with a negative infinitive is perhaps my favorite aspect: the last three syllables do not say “to succeed” (or some more poetic positive phrase!), but rather “not to yield.”  In so many situations, the temptation to succumb to fear is immense; the image of the king– idle no longer, choosing NOT to yield, resolutely rejoining the fray– is tremendously moving. (See also: Théoden.)  

Looking back at this limerick one year later, from a challenging April 2020: may we all continue to be strong in will, through the days ahead.