Science Poetry

Dream Jobs

“Adapt a Midsummer quotation…
Airy nothing gains name, habitation;  
Poet’s pen thus aligning
With a STEM start inclining: 
Things unknown framed through shared observation.”

I am backtracking a bit to the 23 April 2022 Twitter limerick, which I inadvertently overlooked in a busy spring semester!  This poem was posted in honor of William Shakespeare’s birthday and highlights a famous passage from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  

“Adapt a Midsummer quotation… /
Airy nothing gains name, habitation…”  

The first line of the limerick cites the specific play of interest; the second line highlights the pertinent passage of interest, from Act Five of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

“The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling, / Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; / And as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”

“Poet’s pen thus aligning /
With a STEM start inclining: / 
Things unknown framed through shared observation.”

I heard an insightful discussion of the Shakespeare passage during a wonderful online colloquium on science, imagination, and poetry in 2021, via the University of York’s Festival of Ideas.  Several of the points raised stayed with me until the following April, when I again was completing the National Poetry Writing Month routine on April 23, specifically.  (This date has been a particularly fun one to work towards, throughout my four years of attempting NaPoWriMo.)

The general theme is highlighted in the poem’s final line: that both scientists and poets employ new language and metaphor with which to describe the previously unseen world, sharing their observations of the “things unknown” of heaven and earth, in Shakespeare’s writing. 

This has been a fascinating idea to explore in some of my general education courses, examining creativity in both the sciences and the humanities.  Careful observation and detailed description are crucial in multiple fields, and those interdisciplinary overlaps continue to be favorite themes in this space.    

Science Poetry

Mental Models

Enzymes will catalyze.   
Key derivation from 
Briggs and Haldane:
[ES] defined with approach 
Lineweaver-Burk yields a
Graphical gain.”

The 25 April 2022 poem was similar to the “aromaticity ode” from a few days prior, in that its primary aim was to compile a significant amount of information in a memorable way.  It was posted on “DNA Day,” so a biochemistry theme seemed particularly appropriate. 

The poem compiles several names and big-picture findings of several scientists who studied enzyme catalysis.    

“Michaelis-Menten-ly, /
Enzymes will catalyze.” 

Enzymes are biological catalysts, remarkable in their specificity and efficiency: they speed up reactions but are not consumed in these reactions.  Many enzyme-related reactions can be modeled via the Michaelis-Menten mechanism, a step-by-step depiction that biochemists use to understand the kinetics (rates) of enzyme-catalyzed reactions.  

In 1913, biomedical researchers Leonor Michaelis and Maud Menten proposed this important mechanism.  In these first few lines, their famous names are adapted into an adverb for use in this pseudo-double-dactyl poem.  

The mechanism can be seen at this link and rationalizes how an enzyme (abbreviated E) interacts with a substrate (abbreviated S) to ultimately yield a product (abbreviated P).        

“Key derivation from /
Briggs and Haldane:/
[ES] defined with approach / 

George Briggs and J.B.S. Haldane published their work on a subsequent investigation of Michaelis-Menten kinetics in 1925, involving an innovation regarding the enzyme-substrate complex (ES) formed as a reaction intermediate, noting that its concentration in solution (designated in the poem by the square brackets) stays relatively constant (“quasi-steady-state”).    

“Lineweaver-Burk yields a /
Graphical gain.” 

Hans Lineweaver and Dean Burk proposed a graphical analysis of the Michaelis-Menten mechanism in 1934.  This type of analysis allows efficient interpretation of some of the important rate-related data under investigation, which can be quickly ascertained via algebraic manipulation, yielding a “gain” of key kinetic parameters. 

The post title notes that all three pairs of names relate to models that are useful in understanding biochemical processes; it alludes to Maud Menten’s name, specifically, in doing so.

Science Poetry

Novel Vocabulary

“A mid-spring occasion of birthday;
The celebrant, one Charlotte Brontë.  
Her fiction direction 
From Haworth projection 
Yields Eyre literary as mainstay.”

The 21 April 2022 Twitter poem was a limerick that commemorated some common vocabulary terms seen in chemistry and literature.  

A mid-spring occasion of birthday; /
The celebrant, one Charlotte Brontë…  

This particular poem was written in honor of and posted on Charlotte Brontë’s birthday.  Brontë was a renowned English writer who lived from 21 April 1816 to 31 April 1855.  She and her sisters (Emily and Anne) authored several classic novels during their careers.     

“Her fiction direction /
From Haworth projection /
Yields Eyre literary as mainstay.”

The poem notes the overlap in language between a drawing convention used in chemistry and the name of a famous home from the history of British literature.  The Haworth projection is used to quickly communicate information about the three-dimensional structure of saccharides (sugar molecules); this is similar to the ways in which Newman projections and Fischer projections can efficiently share structural information. Different projections have different benefits for different types of molecules.  Haworth House was the name of the Brontë family’s parsonage.  

I remember the similarity in terms striking me when I encountered the chemical drawings for the first time, years ago, and it was fun to find a way to finally highlight that.  The suitability of “Haworth projection” as an appropriate descriptor for a book that originated in some way from the Brontë home (in addition to its chemically precise meaning!) has been with me for a while.  

Finishing up the last few lines, “fiction direction” is a wordy but reasonable rephrasing of the concept of a book’s central theme.  “Eyre literary” is a pun on “literary air” and, of course, a nod to the title of Jane Eyre, since the poem was posted for Charlotte Brontë’s birthday specifically. 

Science Poetry

Mainly in the Plane

“Classifying aromatic?  
Benzene ring, one emblematic
Structure seen; its systematic 
Look yields answer automatic.   
Tougher cases?  Check prolongéd:
‘4n plus two’ pi electrons; 
Conjugated; planar; cyclic.
(Faulty rhymes but fair mnemonic.)”

The 20 April 2022 poem was a checklist-style poem intended to highlight some of the many questions for discerning whether or not an organic molecule is aromatic: an adjective that, in a chemistry context, designates increased stability, compared to what would be predicted from its structure. (Chemists use the terms aromatic, antiaromatic, and non-aromatic as useful classifications of molecular structure.)  

Historically, it was seen that many compounds that had distinct aromas were some of the first to be classified as chemically aromatic; however, now, the two meanings are distinct.    

“Classifying aromatic? / 
Benzene ring, one emblematic /
Structure seen; its systematic /
Look yields answer automatic…”

The first lines ask whether the molecule of interest contains a benzene ring or not, given that benzene is the iconic example of an aromatic molecule.  A molecule could have both aromatic and non-aromatic (aliphatic) regions, but the benzene ring would always be aromatic.  

“Tougher cases?  Check prolongéd: /
‘4n plus two’ pi electrons; / 
Conjugated; planar; cyclic. /
(Faulty rhymes but fair mnemonic.)”

The latter lines include more complex discussions (i.e., a “prolonged check”).  Is the molecule conjugated (alternating single and double bonds, as drawn in an electron dot structure)?  Planar (flat)?  Cyclic (ring-shaped)? If the answer to all three is yes, how many pi electrons (those populating the delocalized “pi bond” system) does the molecule have?   Learning to count these electrons and apply Hückel’s rule is a traditional organic chemistry endeavor. 

If a planar, cyclic, conjugated molecule contains “4n + 2” pi electrons, where n is any number including zero (so that the formula yields two, six, ten, fourteen, etc.), then the molecule would be aromatic.  If the answer to the electron count is “4n” (four, eight, twelve, sixteen, etc.), then the molecule would be antiaromatic: decreased stability, compared to expectation from structure alone.  Benzene (six pi electrons) is aromatic; cyclobutadiene (four pi electrons) is antiaromatic.

This poem uses imperfect rhymes, and it rivals the mechanism-themed verses for density of jargon, but it was fun to try to create here a useful mnemonic.  The title borrows (and misspells) a lyric from Lerner and Loewe’s “The Rain in Spain,” noting a molecule characterized as aromatic overall would be “mainly in the plane,” among other criteria.     

Science Poetry

Heating Curves

“Familiar, this evaporation:
Water boils from stovetop causation.  
As molecules ready,
The temp’rature’s steady:
Much action in steaming stagnation.”

The 19 April 2022 Twitter limerick described the chemistry behind the action of boiling water.  (With respect to the title, a “heating curve” is a specific type of graph often used in chemistry and other STEM disciplines, but it always seems an appropriate turn of phrase when using circular stove burners and cookware in the kitchen, as well.)  

“Familiar, this evaporation: /
Water boils from stovetop causation…”

Boiling water in a pan on the stove is an example of vaporization, a phase change between the liquid and gaseous phases of a substance when the appropriate conditions are achieved.  For water at atmospheric pressure (1 atm), the boiling point temperature would be 100 ℃, 212 ℉, or 373 K, depending on the scale used.    

(“Evaporation” is not fully synonymous with “vaporization“– which would have also scanned well– but the former is generally the more familiar word.)  

“As molecules ready, /
The temp’rature’s steady: /
Much action in steaming stagnation.”

We can imagine heating water on the stove and measuring its temperature as a function of the heat added.  We would see a steady increase from the water’s initial temperature up to the boiling point.  Then, the graph would flatten out briefly: the temperature would be steady for some time, depending on the amount of water being heated.  A certain amount of heat energy would be necessary to accomplish the phase transition itself (converting the water molecules from the liquid phase to the gas phase), before the temperature could keep rising.    

The “steaming stagnation” of the phase transition, an alliterative summary of the phase shift from liquid water to gaseous water, would involve significant molecular action.  

(As with the use of “evaporation” in the first line, I quibble somewhat with my 2022 poem as I expand it here.  I initially used “seeming stagnation,” but the rhyme it immediately brought to mind with “steaming” was too perfect not to adopt.  However, the change admittedly renders the meaning less precise, since steam is itself the gas phase of the sample of interest.)   

Science Poetry

Seeing the Light

“The nature of light defined, namely:
A difficult task at hand, plainly;
A defining question
Throughout STEM progression.  
Now: wave and a particle, samely.”

The 17 April 2022 Twitter limerick provided a massively abridged overview of the scientific study of light.    

“The nature of light defined, namely:
A difficult task at hand, plainly…”

Light has been a phenomenon of keen interest for observers throughout history.  Encyclopedia entries provide sweeping overviews of investigations from around the world, through millennia of history.    

“A defining question /
Throughout STEM progression.”

The past few centuries of scientific history (“STEM progression”) include several famous experiments that have been used to explore the nature of light. Some experiments have supported the concept of light’s wave behavior; others, light’s particle behavior.      

“Now: wave and a particle, samely.”

At the turn of the 20th century, multiple scientists’ discoveries ultimately led to the theory of wave-particle duality for the nature of light.  In 1905, Albert Einstein proposed the existence of the “light quantum” (ultimately termed “photon”): the tiniest particle of light allowed, which could also be observed to act as a wave.  

Wave-particle duality is the name of the theory used today to describe light’s nature.  Light is best understood via the models of quantum mechanics, which also means its behavior is impossible to fully assess with classical-mechanical metaphors and vocabulary (i.e., those models in which a particle OR a wave would be the better choice).  

Einstein eloquently wrote: “It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.” 

Thus, the two viewpoints (wave AND particle) are considered “samely,” and the mathematical treatment chosen to model light’s behavior in a given situation is whichever will better fit.

Science Poetry

Climb Ev’ry Mountain

“To isolate state of transition,
Note how E relies on position: 
The resulting stratagem 
Seeks energy’s maximum
In calc’s geometric submission.”

The 16 April 2022 Twitter limerick returned to more conceptual material, summarizing a specific type of chemistry calculation called a transition-state optimization.

“To isolate state of transition, /
Note how E relies on position…”

A transition-state optimization calculates the energy of a molecule (or chemical entity, more broadly) as a function of its molecular geometry; molecular geometry is a shorthand communicating the position of all the atoms in a given molecule.  The overall shape of most reaction coordinates resembles a hill; it represents an energetic barrier, which must be overcome for the reaction to occur and the products to be formed.  The transition state is at the top of this “hill.”    

To figure out the energy that a reaction needs to proceed, it is necessary to determine the height of the peak that must be scaled: to find the transition state (to “isolate state of transition”).  To achieve this, a chemist generates a drawing or a set of data representing a molecule and submits it to a computational software package.  The ensuing calculations determine energy (E) as a function of the position-related data: aiming to see how the energy changes as positions of the atoms change.    

“The resulting stratagem /
Seeks energy’s maximum /
In calc’s geometric submission.”

The verses in this site have summarized an energy minimization before: how to identify a reaction’s reactants and products, by looking for the lowest-possible energy arrangement of a molecule: the minimized molecular shapes on either side of the reaction barrier.  

A transition-state optimization is the opposite; this “strategem” seeks to find the greatest-possible energy arrangement for the species of interest.  In other words, this is an energy maximization process, aiming to identify the species at the top of the energetic barrier, “climbing the mountain,” in the famously melodic words of this post’s title. 

Science Poetry

Blue Book

“Artist and scientist,
Anna C. Atkins,
With nature’s cyanotypes,
Technique refines.
Photos botanical
Yield tome expansible:
Blueprints for future work
Here intertwine.”  

The final “Twitter biography” poem from NaPoWriMo 2022 was posted on 15 April 2022 and noted some of the many accomplishments of botanist and photographer Anna Atkins (1799-1871).      

“Artist and scientist, /
Anna C. Atkins, /
With nature’s cyanotypes, /
Technique refines…”

Anna Christian Atkins was an English artist and scientist; she explored multiple interdisciplinary overlaps of scientific investigations and illustrations.  She learned the cyanotype technique from its inventor, a friend of her family: Sir John Herschel.  Cyanotyping is a photochemical process that takes advantage of the light-sensitivity of certain iron-containing compounds to generate images on a deep blue (cyan) background.    

Since Atkins was skilled at drawing and illustrating, she had particular insight into the value that a photographic technique could provide with scientific samples that defied hand-drawn record-keeping: in her words, such species were often “so minute that accurate drawings of them [were] very difficult to make.”  She used the cyanotype technique to precisely record aspects of several natural specimens.   

“Photos botanical /
Yield tome expansible: /
Blueprints for future work /
Here intertwine.”

Atkins used the cyanotype technique to develop a “tome expansible,” a book that is generally accepted to be the first compilation of photographic images: Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.  With some poetic license, this collection became “photos botanical” in the verse.  Pages from this book can be seen at the link and provide clear images of the intertwining, delicate samples of interest.  

Atkins’s book was an important historical document in its own right and also set the stage for the use of photography in scientific research for years to come.  The last few lines note this metaphorically and highlight the fact that the cyanotype process is the same chemistry behind the blueprint process.    

Science Poetry

Topics of Interest

“Writer, physician, and 
Doctor Graham Travers:
Last role, pseudonymic, for
Margaret G. Todd.  
Term ‘isotopic,’ her 
Etymologic endeavor, 
Will clarify masses at odds.”

The 14 April 2022 Twitter biography poem alluded to some of the many STEM-related achievements of physician Margaret Todd (1859-1918), including a contribution to the disciplinary vocabulary of chemistry.  

“Writer, physician, and /
Doctor Graham Travers: /
Last role, pseudonymic, for /
Margaret G. Todd…”

Margaret Georgina Todd was a Scottish writer and doctor.  The first two lines seem somewhat redundant in describing her career (“physician and doctor”), but as the third and fourth lines note, “Graham Travers” was the pseudonym under which she wrote  her most famous book: Mona Maclean, Medical Student.   

“Term ‘isotopic,’ her 
Etymologic endeavor, 
Will clarify masses at odds.”

In the field of chemistry, Todd is known for proposing the term “isotope,” in a conversation with radiochemist Frederick Soddy.  

Soddy had been studying elemental forms that corresponded to the same entry on the Periodic Table of the Elements (PTE).  These species shared the same atomic number (number of protons) but were seen to behave chemically differently in some scenarios, which could be ultimately attributed due to their different mass numbers (number of protons plus number of neutrons).  Via collaborations with Ernest Rutherford, Soddy developed the concepts of nuclear reactions and radioactivity, proposing processes by which some of these intriguingly different chemical entities could decay into one another.        

Learning about this research, Todd suggested a new term (“etymologic endeavor”) with which to describe these interesting species. She proposed the word “isotope,” from the Greek for same (“iso”) and place (“topos”), since isotopes are located at the “same place” on the PTE: they are instances of the same element.  

At the macroscopic level, the behavior of isotopes explains why atomic weights (average atomic masses, represented by the numbers underneath the chemical symbols on the PTE) are not whole numbers: different isotopes are present on Earth in different “abundances,” ultimately resulting in fractional values for these average quantities.

Science Poetry

Teaching Philosophies

Gifts polymathic,
Achievements emphatic;
In classrooms, skilled tactics, as
One of the greats…
In STEM fields, succeeding;
Through lab work, proceeding:
Prof. Josephine Yates.” 

The 13 April 2022 Twitter poem was a pseudo-double-dactyl celebrating chemistry professor Josephine Silone Yates.  Records differ as to the date of her birth (listed as either 1852 or 1859), and she lived until 1912.     

Gifts polymathic, /
Achievements emphatic; /
In classrooms, skilled tactics, as /
One of the greats…

Josephine Yates graduated with honors from Rhode Island State Normal School in 1879, ultimately earning her master’s degree from the National University of Illinois.  She taught a wide variety of courses at the Lincoln Institute in Missouri and was the first woman to be named full professor there

Her teaching responsibilities included courses in both the sciences (chemistry, botany, physiology) and the humanities (English literature).  Such multidisciplinary skills, or “gifts polymathic,” constitute considerable achievements for an outstanding teacher.    

Department-leading; /
In STEM fields, succeeding; /
Through lab work, proceeding: /
Prof. Josephine Yates. 

Professor Yates is perhaps most famous for being the first Black woman to chair a natural sciences department, thus “leading [and] succeeding” in multiple scientific fields, as well as directing both lecture and lab curricula.   

She was also a renowned poet and journalist.  Yates once wrote, regarding her teaching work: “The aim of all true education is to give to body and soul all the beauty, strength, and perfection of which they are capable, to fit the individual for complete living.”