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

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.

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. 

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.

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.” 

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.