Categories
Science Poetry

Annual Appreciation

“Practical, rational
Findings: week celebrates,
Spotlighting chem work of 
National fame…
Lab-analyzingly,
Goal-synthesizingly: 
Highlight stick-to-it-ive 
Process and aims!”

The 19 October 2020 Twitter poem marked the start of National Chemistry Week 2020.

“Practical, rational /
Findings: week celebrates, /
Spotlighting chem work of /
National fame…”

The first four lines noted the general themes of National Chemistry Week, which celebrates chemistry research across the USA.  The American Chemical Society sponsors related events and campaigns, throughout late October.  Each year involves a different theme highlighting a different aspect of the discipline of chemistry.    

Lab-analyzingly, /
Goal-synthesizingly: /
Highlight stick-to-it-ive /
Process and aims!”

The second four lines of this poem were focused on the 2020 theme for National Chemistry Week, “Sticking with Chemistry,” examining the science behind adhesives.  

Two hyphenated double-dactyl words, “lab-analyzingly” and “goal-synthesizingly,” summarized some of the main ways in which chemists complete their work.  Several types of analysis can be completed on compounds to understand their elemental composition and overall properties.  New chemical species can be synthesized in the lab, putting elements into new combinations. 

The “stick-to-it-ive” phrasing emphasized both adhesives as the subject of the 2020 celebration, specifically, and the determination with which scientists approach their goals, generally!  

This year’s week began on Monday and, for 2021, celebrates a theme related to ideas of chemical kinetics and reaction rates: “Fast or Slow, Chemistry Makes it Go.”  A new round of Twitter poems is thus in progress… which I’ll return to next year, in this space. 

Categories
Science Poetry

Inflection Points

A painting will react within the air,
The timescale long but resolutely strict;
I learn to my chagrin, almost despair,
And note the harm that passing years inflict. 

To H2O and CO2, paints age,
Convert o’er time; their final state is thus
The same as that for any on this stage. 
(See also: “Ash to ash and dust to dust.”)  

A sobering realization in its time;
I find a new perspective eight years on.
From songs and stories, portraits, prose, and rhyme,
The mem’ries of ancestral homes now gone…

I offer what I can the powerful play,
Take up the pen ‘gainst Time, and join the fray.

This is a non-Twitter poem, and it was a first poetic effort after many years of academic-only writing, as part of a creative writing course I was fortunate to find in Summer 2018.  The course involved daily writing prompts ranging from non-fiction to fiction and finally to poetry.  

In this particular day’s prompt, we were asked to rewrite a Shakespearean sonnet.  I found that reading a few of them and considering the strict rules of their structure helped me to frame an interesting image I’d encountered in a teaching workshop several years before.  At that point, I titled the resulting poem “From a Workshop in Walla Walla, Washington (with apologies to both “Sonnet 15” and Leaves of Grass),” wanting to be sure I credited every aspect of its provenance… perhaps to an absurd extent!

A painting will react within the air, /
The timescale long but resolutely strict, /
I learn to my chagrin, almost despair, /
And note the harm that passing years inflict.  

To H2O and CO2, paints age, /
Convert o’er time; their final state is thus /
The same as that for any on this stage. /
(See also: “Ash to ash and dust to dust.”)   

The poem, drafted in a creative writing class, references another welcome educational opportunity.  

Days after my first year of tenure-track teaching ended in 2010, I flew across the country to a wonderful workshop on Chemistry and Art, held that year in the state of Washington.  It turned out to be the restorative week I needed after the utter exhaustion of that first year.  Working with other scientists and artists, I listened to lectures and completed projects in which I considered the interdisciplinary overlap of chemistry and art more directly than I ever had before: synthesizing a solid pigment as an example of a precipitation reaction; dyeing a fabric to demonstrate interactions between the molecules of the fabric and the molecules of the dye.     

This poem originated from one particularly vivid takeaway point from an art conservation lecture: “[a] painting will react within the air.”  Any painting hanging on a museum wall is hanging in a reactive environment, since the oxygen in the air will cause oxidation reactions to occur.   (Pieces of artwork are sometimes displayed under an inert atmosphere of nitrogen gas only, to avoid these unwanted chemical reactions; certainly, factors such as temperature, lighting, and humidity are carefully controlled in a museum setting more generally.)  

When an organic compound undergoes a combustion reaction (oxidation), it is converted to water and to carbon dioxide.  The binders in oil paints are mixtures of organic compounds (containing carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen).  I had known both of these points, detachedly, for years, and yet I could point to the seat in the classroom where I was sitting when the implication truly clicked.  

The end products of a such a compound’s combustion reaction, even if that reaction doesn’t end for hundreds of years, will be water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2), in terms of the molecular formulas of the thermodynamically stable, final compounds.  “[T]he timeline [is] long,” but the reaction pathway is “resolutely strict.”  In other words, the final state of a painting is not the painting… but these ephemeral reaction products, easily borne away on the air.  

I found this idea reminiscent of the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” phrase found in religious texts and framed it here as an academic note, via the “see also” directive.  

A sobering realization in its time; /
I find a new perspective eight years on. /
From songs and stories, portraits, prose, and rhyme, /
The mem’ries of ancestral homes now gone…

An inflection point, in computational chemistry (or mathematics generally), is where the curve of the mathematical function of interest changes sign.  An inflection point, in a story, is where the plot changes direction.  These lines mark an “intra-poem” inflection point, as I shift here from my chemistry discussion to a line of thought it helped inspire.   

The Chemistry and Art workshop was in Summer 2010.  “[E]ight years on,” at the time of my 2018 writing course, I was dealing with several recent losses within my immediate and extended family.  I had found myself unable in the time immediately afterward to consider any of the family memories that had once meant so much, via so many different media: music, stories, photographs.  Meanwhile, my writing had calcified into an academic, disciplinary-jargon-informed voice in the years after college.  

This writing exercise was thus an inflection point of its own, as I found that I had finally achieved enough fluency with chemistry material to be able to write about it in a more creative way.   This in turn led easily to the more personal reflection, supported by the structure of the sonnet form.

I offer what I can the powerful play, /
Take up the pen ‘gainst Time, and join the fray.  

The closing couplet provides the more measured homage to Walt Whitman and William Shakespeare that the first, clumsy title had aimed to make abundantly clear.  Whitman’s Leaves of Grass famously queries and responds: “The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life? /  Answer. / That you are here—that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15 addresses the inevitability of Time’s arrow and the writer’s resolute effort against it: “And all in war with Time for love of you, / As he takes from you, I engraft you new.”     

I remember where I sat at the workshop when I first connected the dots about the finite lifetime of a work of art.  I remember a morning in my living room years later, as these allusions fell into systematic syllabic place alongside those images from chemistry and, finally, a tribute to my family: the strict rules of the sonnet fit the myriad puzzle pieces into a coherent image. The pertinent turn back towards creative writing has led to a rewarding routine in the years since, including the regular use of this website space.  

Categories
Science Poetry

Process Poem

“Start by observing, then
Ask informed question and
State a hypothesis;
Then test away,
Experimentally.
Findings might verify
(Or ‘back to drawing board’
Also might say…).”

I’ll return here in the autumn semester to the routine of weekly posts in which I provide additional context (“translations”) for the poems I’ve posted on Twitter in previous months. The 31 August 2020 poem summarized the scientific method in double dactylic rhythm.   

“Start by observing, then /
Ask informed question and /
State a hypothesis; /
Then test away, /
Experimentally…”

The specific details of the scientific method are listed in different ways by different sources, but major commonalities persist.  The method is driven by observations, which lead to posing a question with a tentative explanatory answer called a hypothesis.  That hypothesis can predict findings; those predictions can be tested via experiments.  (The presence of “experimentally” on a list of double-dactyl-friendly, six-syllable words prompted this particular poetic endeavor.)  

“Findings might verify /
(Or ‘back to drawing board’ /
Also might say…).”

The final few lines emphasize another aspect of the scientific method: its iterative nature.  Experiments can provide evidence (data, results, conclusions) in support of a hypothesis’s predictions (“findings might verify”), or they can provide evidence that does not support those predictions. In the latter case, a scientist would refine the hypothesis, design a new experiment, and try again: “back to [the] drawing board.”  

As a sidenote, another vocabulary term often introduced alongside the scientific method is “theory.”  A scientific theory is a explanation that has withstood many instances of rigorous testing from the scientific community; the scientific definition of “theory” is different than the everyday definition.  (One valuable metaphor I’ve heard used is that of a map: a theory connects complex information in our understanding of a particular subject into an organized format. The merit of the theory can be evaluated on the basis of the “geographical information” it provides.)

The resources linked herein provide much more detailed and informative discussions of the nature and history of the scientific method!  However, this does seem a fitting topic for the first poem “translation” of this new semester.  

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 the previous post used a break in a rhyme scheme to note Perkin’s findings, 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 contemplation 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 earned her doctoral degree in astronomy from Radcliffe College of Harvard University, as the first person to do so.  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; rather than a “diminuent” (lessening) effect, I plan to include a focus on Payne’s inspiring discovery.

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 hearing more about the history of science and philosophy of science as a student. I am intrigued by whether there might be a way to share an accessible introduction into these interdisciplinary fields (even while I am still very much learning about both of them, myself).

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 reagents, also called 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. 

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.  

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.

After a disastrous first run, Perkin would likely 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 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 purplish 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 the moment.  What is indisputable is that the “rules” have changed; further, adapting to that unexpected observation takes some time. Those points are 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.