Science Poetry

Words of the Week

“Today starts a week that will readily  
Spotlight highlights for seven days, steadily,
As we celebrate nationally
Our science that rationally
Explores matter’s properties: chemistry.”

The 20 October 2019 Twitter poem began a series of poems written to celebrate National Chemistry Week 2019.    

“Today starts a week that will readily /
Spotlight highlights for seven days, steadily…”
As with Chemists Celebrate Earth Week, which I’ve written about in this space previously, National Chemistry Week is a celebration sponsored by the American Chemical Society.  I had not realized its longevity until writing this piece; the first occurrence was in 1989.  Each year, the week has a different theme, highlighting such myriad topics as chemistry and art, environmental chemistry, and nanotechnology.    

“As we celebrate nationally /
Our science that rationally /
Explores matter’s properties: chemistry.”
The theme of the 2019 National Chemistry Week was “Marvelous Metals,” as will be seen over several upcoming entries here.  This year, National Chemistry Week will be held from October 18-24 and will focus on “Sticking with Chemistry”: the science behind glues and adhesives.  The American Chemical Society provides a wealth of educational resources and activities each year to celebrate the pertinent theme, sponsoring events across the USA.  Chemistry examines the structures, properties, and reactions of chemical species, commonly phrased as the study of matter.    

(“Chemistry” is a word that doesn’t perfectly rhyme with too many others.  One of the rhymes I tried in an early draft of this limerick was “centrally,” building on chemistry’s characterization as a “central science.”  I was most familiar with this phrase in its capacity as part of a popular textbook title; again, it was interesting in drafting this essay to realize some larger discussions of that phrase.  As one might suspect, the connections between different STEM disciplines are complex and oft-debated!)   

STEM Education Poetry

Name That Tune

“The Alphabet” and “Twinkle, Twinkle,
Little Star” share a melody single.  
The tunes are the same,
But when just naming names,
Common content can be tough to signal!    

This non-Twitter poem highlights an interesting challenge of communicating in scientific disciplines; this challenge certainly extends to introductory science courses.  

“The Alphabet” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, /
Little Star” share a melody single.  
Several childhood songs, including the alphabet song (a.k.a. “now I know my ABCs”), “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and others, have the same melody. However, that often is not obvious until one hums each tune to oneself. These initial two lines are rhythmically awkward, but they succinctly introduce a point that can resonate in a more complex context: during a STEM student’s undergraduate path, they often encounter common concepts in multiple courses.  

The tunes are the same, /
But when just naming names, /
Common content can be tough to signal!   
I remember one hallway conversation with a colleague teaching in a different STEM discipline; we were discussing the fact that thermodynamics had recently come up in both of our courses, but it was difficult for students taking both to transfer concepts and calculations between the two disciplinary presentations.  It didn’t take much time to identify the reason why. 

If we think about the process of heating a sample of water through all three of its phases, from solid ice to liquid water to gaseous steam, that process involves two “phase changes,” one from solid to liquid and one from liquid to gas.  At each of these, some heat energy is necessary to cause the phase change itself.  For instance, depending on sample size, it takes a certain amount of heat energy transferred at constant pressure to cause ice to melt to water: this was a concept that had recently come up in both my and my colleague’s courses. However, we soon realized that while I was discussing it in class as the enthalpy of that melting step, my colleague referred to it as the latent heat.  We each had learned the other term at some point, but it still took us a few seconds to recalibrate our discussion; we realized that students were likely hearing each unusual term as its own unusual concept, even with such an everyday process as the melting of ice.  

To directly link this anecdote to the limerick: the “melody” here is the familiar idea that melting ice to form water requires an input of heat energy at constant pressure.  However, that’s not immediately evident when “naming names” and learning the disciplinary vocabulary: the “common content” is challenging to realize. 

Different scientific disciplines require their own complicated disciplinary jargons for efficient communication among their specialists.  This can create quite a hurdle for novice learners, who often must take more than one introductory STEM course at once.  As with so many of these essays, my hope is that being aware of that obstacle might provide an important step towards navigating it.   

I will end here with a wonderful quotation from renowned organic chemist Percy Julian, whose words bring the essay to a close with a focus on another childhood rhyme.   

“I don’t want to frighten those of you who are not familiar with organic chemistry. I should have said in the beginning that one hardly expects an organic chemist to be able to speak without his gobbledygook in his language. As a matter of fact, one hardly expects a scientist to speak without that, and therefore scientists are usually and traditionally poor speakers, I warn you… The late Sir J. B. S. Haldane, the great biologist, put it rather aptly when he said that our language doesn’t lend itself to poetry. ‘Ladybird, ladybird fly away home’ becomes impossible when you must call the ladybird Coccinella bipunctata.”

Dr. Percy Julian, quoted in “Forgotten Genius,” NOVA
Science Poetry

Shaping Ideas

“To consider electrons’ repulsions
In geometries under construction,
VSEPR theory
Provides first steps; here, see 
To molecular shapes, introduction.”  

The 14 October 2019 limerick alludes to a theory used in introductory chemistry courses to rationalize molecular geometries.   

“To consider electrons’ repulsions /
In geometries under construction…”
Yet another big idea in General Chemistry is that of molecular geometry: the three-dimensional shape in which a molecule exists.  The shapes of molecules have major implications for how these molecules can react and interact with one another, and so being able to predict a molecule’s geometry is an important first step for understanding its properties and reactions.  Three theories are typically introduced to rationalize molecular geometries: valence bond theory, molecular orbital theory, and valence-shell electron-pair repulsion theory.  All involve to some extent the central idea that negatively charged electrons repel one another.  

“VSEPR theory / 
Provides first steps; here, see /
To molecular shapes, introduction.”     
In general chemistry textbooks, the chapter on molecular geometry is a chapter in which Bent’s characterization of “strange terms for strange things” often seems particularly apt.  The three theories mentioned above are referred to as their abbreviations: VB theory, MO theory, and VSEPR theory, respectively.  (Further confusing the issue, VSEPR is often pronounced “vesper”!  However, in this poem, the rhyme scheme relies on spelling out the acronym.)       

VSEPR theory is the simplest of the three and is generally extensively explored in introductory coursework, providing important “first steps.”  As alluded to above, VSEPR stands for “valence-shell electron-pair repulsion.”  Valence electrons are the outermost electrons of an element; when elements combine into molecular compounds, the valence electrons participate in covalent bonds (with each bond involving two electrons) or exist in “lone pairs.”  In all of these cases, the electron pairs from the valence shells repel.  This ultimately results in characteristic shapes for molecules, as electron pairs will distance as far away from one another as is geometrically possible.   

STEM Education Poetry

Taking Note

“A lab notebook stands written sentry
Over data advanced, element’ry.
When the record is clear,
Future readers adhere,
To repeat work outlined in past entries.”

Revisiting the 30 September 2019 Twitter limerick through the lens of the STEM education-themed poems provides an opportunity to emphasize the lab notebook as an educational tool.

“A lab notebook stands written sentry /
Over data advanced, element’ry.”
Keeping a clear record of experimental data in a lab notebook is a learning objective in most undergraduate laboratories, from first-year introductory chemistry courses through upper-level majors’ courses.  These notebooks thus stand guard over data ranging from elementary to advanced.           

“When the record is clear, /
Future readers adhere, /
To repeat work outlined in past entries.”
Writing a lab notebook entry is a task for which there is no single “correct” approach.  However, a complete entry typically includes the following: a statement of purpose; information on amounts of reagents used and the procedures completed; the data collected; at least one sample calculation for each result; and a brief conclusion statement.  Data should be recorded in ink, and errors should be crossed out only with a single line apiece, so that the entire procedural record can be observed and understood.  I generally remind my students to write at a level of detail enabling a “future reader” (another chemist) to pick up the notebook and repeat the entire procedure from the “past entr[y].”

Since beginning my teaching work, I have been interested in revisiting lab notebook assignments as  writing-to-learn techniques.  I have asked students to turn in scanned pages from their first experiment for comments only: a “low-stakes” formative assessment, long before the lab notebook is graded at the close of the semester for a significant portion of the grade, in the traditional, “high-stakes” summative assessment.  More recently, I have been interested to learn further about writing across the curriculum initiatives in STEM. Writing and learning in chemistry are both iterative processes that can reinforce one another. 

Science Poetry

Evenhanded Remarks

“The property known as chirality:
A helix’s handed spirality;
Two non-superposing
Mirrored molecules, chosen
To label by dext/sinist-rality.”  

The 23 September 2019 limerick addressed an interesting property observed in three-dimensional molecules, which is introduced in organic chemistry coursework.   

“The property known as chirality: /
A helix’s handed spirality…”
Organic Chemistry 1 is a challenging course for many reasons, one of which is the necessity of thinking about three-dimensional molecules and properties via largely two-dimensional communication: textbooks and chalkboard drawings.  One property that demands the ability to think three-dimensionally is chirality.  

It is obvious when someone puts shoes on the wrong foot or gloves on the wrong hand.  Feet and hands are chiral: they are non-superimposable mirror images.  Some molecules exist in “handed” forms, which means they react differently in “glove-like” chemical environments: some fit and some don’t.  Other molecules are achiral; they do not exhibit this quality.  (I’ve always liked the succinctness of “shoes are chiral; socks are achiral.”)   A DNA molecule, with its spiraling helix, is chiral, providing a pertinent rhyme.

“Two non-superposing /
Mirrored molecules, chosen /
To label by dext/sinist-rality.” 
Several precise vocabulary terms are introduced via topics of stereochemistry.  Molecules that are stereoisomers are molecules made up of the same atoms bonded in the same order but with different three-dimensional arrangements.  Stereoisomers that exist as pairs of the non-superimposable mirror images described above are called enantiomers.  Specific stereocenters (locations where chirality is evident) are distinguished as having “R” or “S” orientations.   Many such terms are used in organic coursework.    

Along with R/S notation, chiral molecules can also be described in terms of their optical rotation: the direction in which they rotate plane-polarized light, which is described with a positive or negative sign.  These terms are dextrorotatory (clockwise rotation) and levorotatory (counterclockwise rotation).  To fit the limerick’s rhythmic constraints, “dext/sinist-rality” was used as a shorthand for this last set of “handed” definitions.    

Science Poetry

Addressing Challenges

“Quantum numbers disencumber
Orbital descriptions.  
Combinations’ denotations: 
3-D space depictions
From wavefunctions.  Numbers’ junctions 
Address volumes probable.
Useful tools are Q. N. rules,
To name electrons’ ‘domiciles.’”

The 16 September 2019 Twitter poem highlights a useful metaphor for considering atomic orbitals (mathematical functions that describe electron behaviors) in General Chemistry.  Since the actual math describing atomic orbitals will not be seen until higher-level chemistry coursework, it can be challenging to discern the uses and descriptions of these models at the introductory level.  

“Quantum numbers disencumber /
Orbital descriptions.”  
Matter functions differently from our everyday experience at the atomic and subatomic scales: whereas the equations of classical mechanics work well in describing everyday observations, the equations of quantum mechanics are used to describe the particulate-level scale.  Electrons are subatomic particles, and their locations are described in terms of probabilities; rather than the exact path delineated by an “orbit,” an electron’s location is within an “orbital.”  An orbital is described by a combination of quantum numbers (n, l, and ml).  Each number relates to a different aspect of the orbital: combined, they establish its size, shape, and orientation in space.  (A final quantum number, ms, identifies the specific electron within its orbital, via that electron’s spin.)  A combination of quantum numbers specifies an orbital of interest, “disencumber[ing]” its description.   

“Combinations’ denotations: /
3-D space depictions /
From wavefunctions.  Numbers’ junctions /
Address volumes probable.”    
By manipulating the mathematical function associated with an orbital (called a wavefunction), a three-dimensional shape results; this shape represents, with 95% certainty, where an electron will be.  Each specific “3-D space depiction” is denoted by the combination, or “junction,” of the three quantum numbers (n, l, and ml) described above; a common metaphor is an address for an orbital’s “volume probable.”     

“Useful tools are Q. N. rules, /
To name electrons’ ‘domiciles.’”
Quantum numbers and the rules describing them give us a succinct way to identify the “domicile” of an electron: the orbital in which it “resides.”  While such imagery is, of course, not nearly as precise as the mathematics used in advanced coursework to further explore atomic orbitals, this analogy provides an accessible and important step for students in understanding the concept.   

STEM Education Poetry

Form and Function

“Committee work kicks off this week,
The third of fall semester.
The aim for each: a functional group!
À la the ketone, ester—
Will set structures henceforth guide us,
How in meetings we’ll react?
(This imagery is shaky,
But the rhyme scheme is intact.)”

This past Twitter poem lines up with the current prose here in an intriguing way, as this is Week 3 of the current semester, Fall 2020.  This verse compares a common organic chemistry definition– “functional group”– to the everyday meaning of such a phrase. 

While this essay doesn’t examine an aspect of chemical education directly, in the same way most of the other STEM education poems have, it centers on an aspect of a faculty member’s schedule that may not be immediately evident to students and that may be thus useful to highlight. In particular, faculty members specifically reserve office hours to ensure that they have time available for student questions outside of class: otherwise, committee meetings and other service work can quickly overwhelm the calendar.

“Committee work kicks off this week, /
The third of fall semester…”
Generally speaking (in Fall 2019, for instance), the first two weeks of a fall semester are relatively slow in terms of service: the necessary committee work with respect to guiding a university’s curriculum and other important topics.  These tasks supplement a faculty member’s teaching and research.  (These lines don’t apply as well in this unusual autumn, when many meetings have been occurring all summer.)   

“The aim for each: a functional group!”
The third line of this poem introduces what will be revealed as a chemistry pun.  Certainly, one central goal for any committee is being a group that functions well.  

“À la the ketone, ester….”
The fourth line highlights the chemistry-specific meaning of “functional group.”  In organic chemistry, a functional group is a characteristic group of atoms that defines the function of a molecule.  For instance, if a molecule contains an oxygen atom bonded to a hydrogen atom (this is a pattern abbreviated as “R-OH”), it is said to contain an alcohol functional group, and chemists thus know that this molecule will undergo some established reaction pathways.  Two other common functional groups that fit particularly well in this rhyme scheme are ketones and esters.  

“Will set structures henceforth guide us, /
How in meetings we’ll react?”
Lines five and six make the comparison between the chemistry definition and everyday definition explicit: will the structure of a campus committee inform how it functions?  

“(This imagery is shaky,
But the rhyme scheme is intact.)”
The closing lines emphasize that the two definitions don’t truly overlap: work accomplished by a committee will always be far less predictable than the reactions available to organic molecules!

Science Poetry

Metric Systems

“Can metric prefix to a poem’s foot 
Be pre-appended?
In Shakespeare’s verse, do mega-iambs
Broaden sonnets splendid? 
In brief rhymes, nano-anapests?
No, queries such are censured,
Since feet are units English:
Closing lines’ response is measured.”

The 2 September 2019 Twitter poem involved a number of variations on the same idea, which was the contrast between two “metric systems”: one used in chemistry, with the prefixes that immediately communicate important information about scale; and the other used in English, to communicate information about poetic rhythms.  

Can metric prefix to a poem’s foot /
Be pre-appended?
The first two lines introduced the idea stated above, querying whether the two types of metric systems could be combined, to use STEM’s prefixes to modify English literature’s poetic feet.  

In Shakespeare’s verse, do mega-iambs
Broaden sonnets splendid? 
In brief rhymes, nano-anapests?
The next three lines explore two examples of this potential combination, based on the scope of the prefix of interest.  “Mega” is a metric prefix meaning a factor of one million (106); it makes a number six orders of magnitude larger.  Given the grandeur and fame of Shakespeare’s sonnets, written in iambic pentameter, the “mega” scale seems potentially fitting for these iambic feet (which consist of one unstressed syllable, then one stressed syllable).  “Nano” is a metric prefix meaning a factor of one-billionth (10-9): it makes a number nine orders of magnitude smaller and so could presumably make a brief rhyme quite a bit more fleeting!  The anapest foot consists of two unstressed syllables, then one stressed syllable.  (Samuel Taylor Coleridge has summarized the rhythms of these and many others in his “Metrical Feet.”)

No, queries such are censured,
Since feet are units English:
Closing lines’ response is measured.
The last three lines ruminate on the mismatchedness of these combinations with two puns.  First, feet are defined as “units English,” which has a double meaning, given both its literature-based uses above and the measurement unit’s heritage.  [Metric prefixes can only be used with metric units (e.g., “kilometer” is a valid use, since “kilo” is a metric prefix and “meter” is part of the metric system, but “kilofoot” would not be… and indeed, looks gratingly wrong!).]  Second, the poem characterizes its response as “measured”: a phrase implying deliberate rumination but also highlighting the metrology theme of this verse.     

STEM Education Poetry

Distanced Drums

In the last few days of summer,
Academic tasks loom large,

And the campus seems deserted. 
Frantic chances to recharge,

All the faculty are seizing
As the August moments wane,

Ere the hectic Fall Semester 
To our lives returns again. 
Then, into this tired transition,
Hope arrives on yonder field:

Hark, the marching band’s crescendo
Causes lassitude to yield!

Suddenly, New Year seems promising;
Bleak mood is overcome,

As the mind and heart still answer
To the call of distant drums. 

I wrote these lines last year, before Autumn 2019, when I could not imagine how strange Autumn 2020 would be.  However, in finding this non-Twitter poem in a notebook last week, I considered how it represents many traditions that I still value about the fall semester– and that I still indirectly have observed in these early days.    

In the last few days of summer, /
Academic tasks loom large, /
And the campus seems deserted.

My college campus in a typical summer break is an interesting place: a great deal of work occurs, but not on an academic term’s timetable.  Faculty complete research, travel, and attend conferences, focusing on scholarship rather than classes.  In late summer, we return to our main focus of teaching preparation: significant work that often is accomplished more easily from home.  The last few days on campus before people officially return are thus particularly empty.    

Frantic chances to recharge, /
All the faculty are seizing /
As the August moments wane, /

Ere the hectic Fall Semester /
To our lives returns again.

I am generally aware in late August that my schedule is about to become much busier!  Most years (not this one), I take a short trip before required meetings begin, seizing “frantic chances to recharge” in those disappearing days.      

Then, into this tired transition, /
Hope arrives on yonder field: /
Hark, the marching band’s crescendo /
Causes lassitude to yield!

In many previous summers, I’ve had a moment when, in wearily traveling to or from my office in the week of meetings before classes, I’ve heard music (from “yonder” football field) and suddenly realized that students must be back on campus for marching band practice.  As a musician and former band member, I always notice and appreciate those familiar echoes.  The recognition provides an inspiring jolt of energy, “caus[ing] lassitude to yield,” reminding me of the promise of the upcoming semester, rather than the preparations still to finish. 

This year, unsure of what would happen with ensembles’ schedules, I was surprised and pleased to hear the late-summer music yet again. Moreover, these moments have continued into the fall term, as many instrumentalists and vocalists practice outside in socially distanced fashion, rehearsing across our main campus.      

Suddenly, New Year seems promising;
Bleak mood is overcome, /

As the mind and heart still answer /
To the call of distant drums. 

The poem’s last line borrows a phrase from the musical version of Les Misérables: throughout the show, characters anticipate the promise of a better tomorrow and listen for the “distant drums.”  This idealism has always resonated for me at the start of a new school year, especially at that moment of hearing the percussion in that first band practice.  (I’m hardly the first person to connect these themes with academia; I remember an excellent homage from 2015, starring faculty members at a professional development meeting!)  

Over the past few weeks, we have returned to campus in a variety of course spaces.  It’s been an unusual experience: remote learning and online discussions in some rooms; social distancing and Plexiglass barriers in others.  However, looking past these (“beyond the barricades,” perhaps), many things are consistent: the start of a new academic year; its combination of welcome routines and unwritten pages.  The early days of classes still represent enormous promise and heartening constancy in this challenging time; the cadences still sound.   

Science Poetry

Wake-Up Calls

“The coffee brews; its volatility
Gives rise to the day’s volubility.  
This vital transaction
Of aqueous extraction 
Relies on caffeine’s solubility!”

The 6 August 2019 limerick discussed a theme fitting for early days of an academic year: the chemistry involved in making coffee.  

“The coffee brews; its volatility /
Gives rise to the day’s volubility.”  
Like many people, I rely on coffee in the morning.  Its aroma as it steams out of a mug–  a loose but ideally reasonable take on volatility, which in a chemical context involves the evaporation of a liquid to a gas– helps me prepare for the classes ahead, which require alertness and communicativeness, both inherent in volubility.  “Volatility” and “volubility” provide here an imperfect starting rhyme; the second line is essentially a set-up for the fifth.  

“This vital transaction /
Of aqueous extraction / 
Relies on caffeine’s solubility!”
Solid chemical compounds (in this context, solutes) can be soluble to different extents in different solvents: that is, they can dissolve more easily in some solvents than others.  Often, solutes are classified as aqueous-soluble (they dissolve in water) or organic-soluble (they dissolve in organic solvents). Differences in solubility can be exploited in the laboratory to separate mixtures of compounds, using a piece of glassware called a separatory funnel.  

As this poem suggests, principles of solubility can also be useful in the kitchen!  For someone who is far from alert when the alarm goes off, a routine of drinking coffee quickly becomes a “vital transaction,” each morning.  Brewing coffee involves pouring water over coffee grounds; because the caffeine in the coffee grounds is water-soluble, especially at high temperatures, it dissolves in the water and the resulting solution drips into the coffeepot.  Thus, this is an “aqueous extraction,” since the act of making coffee is reliant on caffeine’s solubility in water.  As alluded to above, the rhyme of “volubility” and “solubility” was the inspiration for this particular limerick.