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. 

STEM Education Poetry

Pacing Around

“The weekend’s lost its ‘free-time’ grace;
My kitchen’s now my classroom’s place.
I walk around apartment space:
My courses are all quite self-paced!”

The 18 April 2020 poem directly noted the unique circumstances of teaching in the Spring 2020 semester, as all classes abruptly shifted online in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.      

“The weekend’s lost its ‘free-time’ grace; / 
My kitchen’s now my classroom’s place..”
The 2020-21 academic year has been a challenging mixture of online and in-person teaching, but Summer 2020 at least provided time to learn about resources and optimize an approach.  In contrast, March and April 2020 were truly a blur, with everything suddenly and immediately online.  Each day blended into the next, and it was vital to use the weekends to prepare course materials for the coming week, since the weeks themselves involved a steady stream of email conversations and meetings.  The weekends no longer provided any break (they lost their “‘free-time’ grace”).  

As I’m guessing was the case for many faculty members, my kitchen table became “my classroom’s place,” replacing my home desk; a computer, textbooks, notes, and a document camera required more space than a personal desk could provide!  

“I walk around apartment space: /
My courses are all quite self-paced!”
Looking back at Spring 2020 from Spring 2021, I note that, although the current moment is still strange, it’s far less uncertain than those first weeks seemed.  I spent most of last spring walking in only the geographical space of my apartment complex (“around apartment space”), as so many businesses and public spaces were also suddenly closed.    

In terms of my teaching, the work alluded to in the first lines primarily involved creating asynchronous resources: providing documents and videos that could be linked online, so that students (whose schedules had likewise shifted enormously in only a few days) had as much flexibility as possible in learning the material.  These could also be construed as “self-paced” courses… a description which mimicked my daily routine. 

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

On All Counts

“Constantly, consciously,
A. Avogadro will 
Simplify chemistry’s
Math rigmarole,
Working through various
Calcs with his number
Defining the mole.”

This next double dactyl poem, posted on 9 April 2020, blended some historical information about Italian chemist Amedeo Avogadro with some descriptions of the uses of a scientific constant later named in his honor.   

“Constantly, consciously, /
A. Avogadro will /
Simplify chemistry’s /
Math rigmarole.”  
Amedeo Avogadro (1776-1856) examined the relationship of the number of molecules in a gas sample to the volume of that sample, determining that samples with more molecules occupied greater volumes, assuming constant temperature and pressure.  This is true regardless of what the molecules themselves are.  We can see this in the relationship of the variables n (number of moles, which is related to number of molecules) and V (volume) in the ideal gas law: pV = nRT.  Avogadro’s Law, specifically, is often written as V1/n1 = V2/n2.  An important constant used by chemists, Avogadro’s Number, was ultimately named in Avogadro’s honor, but it would take several more decades for this term to be defined by French scientist Jean Baptiste Perrin.   

In terms of the poetic language used here, Avogadro’s work delved into varied quantitative aspects of chemistry, “simplify[ing]” the subject’s “math rigmarole,” and the number named for him is a constant.      

“Working through various /
Stoichiometrical /
Calcs with his number /
Defining the mole.”
As has been discussed elsewhere in this space, Avogadro’s Number is 6.022 x 10^23 “per mole”: 6.022 x 10^23 is the number of particles of a chemical species in one mole of that species.  The scale of this number allows conversions between the particulate and macroscopic levels.

(The second portion of the poem veers into fiction, since Avogadro himself would not have used Avogadro’s Number, but it was too hard to resist using the double-dactyl word of “stoichiometrical” in one of these poems, once I saw a pertinent list of such words and realized that this chemical term would likewise qualify.)