Categories
Science Poetry

Painstaking Attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No more diminuent 
Should be her story: Cecilia Payne.  

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From David Bodanis’s E = mc2

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Science Poetry

Violet Ends

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

Categories
Science Poetry

Synthetic Poetics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

Categories
Science Poetry

Weighty Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Science Poetry

By Leaps and Bounds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Science Poetry

Sounding the Depths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Science Poetry

Adapting to Circumstances

“Consider the Claisen adapter:
In labwork, an oft-helpful factor
If two tasks, acknowledged,
In tandem accomplished 
Must be, to close synthesis chapter.” 

The next specifically chemistry-themed poem for NaPoWriMo 2020 was a limerick posted on 21 April 2020.  It described the appearance and use of a distinctive piece of glassware from the organic chemistry laboratory.  

“Consider the Claisen adapter…”
Rainer Ludwig Claisen’s name appears many times in an organic chemistry curriculum!  This German chemist worked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (1851-1930) and explored several key organic reactions now known via his name, including the Claisen condensation and the Claisen rearrangement.  The Claisen adapter, also named for him, is a piece of glassware that allows a synthetic chemist to accomplish multiple lab objectives simultaneously.  

“In labwork, an oft-helpful factor /
If two tasks, acknowledged, /
In tandem accomplished /
Must be, to close synthesis chapter.” 
Claisen originally developed a specific piece of glassware called the Claisen flask.  However, the adapter creates more flexibility and facilitates a wider array of set-ups. The adapter is more commonly found in modern glassware kits.  

A Claisen adapter has a characteristic Y-shape: it can be fitted directly to a round-bottom flask at the bottom of the “Y,” and the two arms of the “Y” can each be connected to a different piece of lab equipment.  This means that, for instance, a chemist could run a reaction under reflux while adding a new reagent simultaneously.  Similarly, a reaction mixture could be sampled via thin-layer chromatography (TLC) through while the temperature of that mixture is monitored by a thermometer.  Options vary widely, but their consistently bifurcated natures are highlighted poetically: “two tasks, acknowledged, in tandem accomplished.” 

The website Compound Interest provides an outstanding visual resource regarding the wide array of glassware found in chemistry laboratories. Many of these pieces are named for the scientists who designed them, adding to the complexity of chemistry’s disciplinary vocabulary.

Categories
Science Poetry

Spring Forward

“Outside the windows, 
Note ample accrual
Of flowers, birds, sunshine: 
The season’s renewal.  
(Hooke’s Law reminds us, 
As matter of course:
As goes the distance, 
So scales the spring’s force.)”  

As with several preceding Twitter posts, this 20 April 2020 poem celebrated the arrival of spring.  This particular piece did so by using two meanings of the word “spring”: the season and the physical object.  

“Outside the windows, /
Note ample accrual /
Of flowers, birds, sunshine: / 
The season’s renewal.”     
I find winter challenging, and the shift to spring is always a hopeful change of scenery.  By April 2020, most of life was occurring via computer screen, and “social distancing” was a phrase used more and more commonly.   I missed in-person classes, but I also missed the walks through campus to my office, which had previously incorporated chances to see the signs of spring into my daily routine.  Seeing spring arrive “outside the windows” was not the same as directly observing spring in person.         

“(Hooke’s Law reminds us, 
As matter of course:
As goes the distance, 
So scales the spring’s force.)”  
I found an intriguing echo for that sense of pre-2020 nostalgia in the scientific equation known as Hooke’s Law, which describes the action of a coiled spring as a physical object.  Robert Hooke (1635-1703) was an English scientist who made major advances in several STEM fields. 

Hooke’s eponymous law states that Fs = kx.  The force of a spring (Fs) depends on the force constant (k), which represents the stiffness of the spring, and the distance (x) by which the spring is stretched out or compressed.  Chemists use Hooke’s Law and the motion of a spring to model the motion of two atoms chemically bonded together.   

Hooke summarized his law via the statement, “As the extension, so the force,” which I echoed in the final two lines here.  Poetically, I attempted to highlight how the powerful “force” of the newly arrived season was enhanced by the fact that, in the course of a screen-focused workday, its aspects seemed further away. 

Categories
Science Poetry

Changing Lenses

“The bending of light called refraction,
Observed through a prism’s clear action;
The white light’s unweaving
Yields colors’ perceiving:
A rainbow’s display, the extraction.”

The 17 April 2020 limerick discussed the property of light called refraction, via allusions to famous historical discussions of that property in poetry and science.  

“The bending of light called refraction, /
Observed through a prism’s clear action…”
When light waves pass between different media, they change direction; they bend.  This bending is more precisely termed “refraction” and can be observed “through the action” of a (clear) prism; when white light passes through, it refracts into its component ROYGBIV colors.  Since each color of light has its own characteristic wavelength, each is affected by this bending to a different extent, resulting in the appearance of the rainbow.  

“The white light’s unweaving /
Yields colors’ perceiving: /
A rainbow’s display, the extraction.”

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) completed experiments on refraction in 1665: exploring the refraction of white light into its component colors; showing that each single color of light could not be further refracted; demonstrating that the colors could recombine into white light.    

John Keats (1795-1821) wrote about science’s wringing the beauty from the world in his poem Lamia: “Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings, / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, / Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine– / Unweave a rainbow….”  Years after Newton, Keats wrote in response in part to Newton’s experiments; the natural philosophy that Keats criticizes in these lines is what we call science.   “Unweaving the rainbow” is thus a phrase often cited to summarize the sometimes-tense relationship between science and literature.  

I value both fields greatly and attempt to celebrate both in this verse: emphasizing that Newton’s endeavor “unwove” white light into the beautiful rainbow; highlighting Keats’s distinct, memorable phrasing.  The last line’s pairing of “display” with the more clinical “extraction” acknowledges, though, that the poetic and scientific lenses can be (frustratingly) different in how they communicate common phenomena of interest.

Categories
Science Poetry

Structural Engineering

“Brilliantly, diligently,
Rosalind Franklin:
Her crystallographic skills, 
Insights display;   
Her expertise, honed 
In X-ray diffraction: 
Unwinds major mystery,
Reveals DNA.”  

The next chemistry-themed poem in April 2020 was posted on April 16, in memory of Rosalind Franklin.  Rosalind Franklin was a scientist whose expertise in X-ray crystallography revealed insights into several important chemical structures in the mid-twentieth century.

“Brilliantly, diligently, /
Rosalind Franklin: /
Her crystallographic skills, /
Insights display…”
Different energies and wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation (light) are used by scientists to understand different aspects of chemical behavior.  X-rays have higher energies and shorter wavelengths than visible light.  When X-rays shine onto a crystalline sample, they are diffracted into a characteristic pattern due to the arrangement of the atoms within the crystal.  A crystallographer can observe this characteristic pattern and deduce the arrangement of atoms that must have caused that pattern.  

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) used X-ray crystallography to observe chemical compounds for which the underlying structures were not yet known: demonstrating brilliance and diligence via her experimental and analytical skills.  

“Her expertise, honed /
In X-ray diffraction: /
Unwinds major mystery, /
Reveals DNA.”  
The most famous of these cases was that of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).  DNA was isolated (experimentally separated) by biochemist Friedrich Miescher in 1869.  Clarifying DNA’s structure required several more decades, via a path relying on both theory and experiment.  Four scientists were responsible for the major insights in the early 1950s that revealed this structure’s now-famous double helix.  Along with Franklin, Maurice Wilkins completed key crystallographic experiments; Francis Crick and James Watson devised the theoretical model explaining the structure.  

Crick, Watson, and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.  Franklin had died of ovarian cancer in 1958 and did not share in the award.  Much has been written about this, at much greater length.  

Franklin’s scrupulous X-ray crystallographic work was crucial in understanding DNA’s structure: famously, her lab’s “Photo 51” demonstrated that the molecule contained a helix, “unwinding [the] major mystery” to “reveal DNA.”