Periodic Practice

“The end of these April renditions;
I wrap up here second edition
Of month STEM-poetic,
Routine theoretic:
Two years now of rhyming tradition.”  

The 30 April 2020 limerick commemorated the end of my second attempt at National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo).  

“The end of these April renditions…”
National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo), like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), encourages writers to spend a month-long stretch devoted to a daily routine of writing.  For me, personally, a poem per day is significantly more feasible than a novel in a month!  April 30 has marked a milestone in the past few years, as I’ve managed thirty poems in thirty days in both 2019 and 2020.  

“I wrap up here second edition /
Of month STEM-poetic…”
In reality, the 2019 poems were more cohesive in their focus on chemistry concepts and stories (“STEM-poetic”) than were the 2020 poems. The 2020 project did acknowledge several scientific concepts and scientists, but on other days, I simply described the historic and unusual circumstances of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic.  I’ve been finding the distinctions between work and life quite blurred, over the past several months, so perhaps this “second edition” can be thought of as acknowledging that.  

“Routine theoretic: /
Two years now of rhyming tradition.”  
I’ve written here previously that the overlap of writing practice and chemistry concepts (a “routine theoretic”) has been particularly helpful for me.  That has continued in this challenging year.  Having the structure of NaPoWriMo has been useful in generating poetic verse; expanding on those brief poems in short essays has likewise provided a welcome distraction during some busy weeks. 

As I write this entry, I’m through the majority of my third NaPoWriMo, and I am hopeful that I can finish the 2021 poems, as well, to revisit here later this year. 

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.  

Science Poetry

By Leaps and Bounds

“Certainly, expertly,
Barbara McClintock:
Transposons deciphered
Through her watchful gaze;
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

“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.      

Science Poetry

Sounding the Depths

“Rightly and writerly,
Rachel L. Carson,
As author and scientist,
Insights will bring:
Marine biology;
Earth-bound ecology;
Giving a voice to the 
Sounds of the spring.” 

It is interesting in revisiting the NaPoWriMo 2020 poems to realize that far fewer were as specifically science- or chemistry-themed as those from the 2019 project had been.  Many addressed, instead, the unusual and challenging circumstances of Spring 2020.  

This next essay thus revisits a poem from 27 April 2020, as the month began to wind down with some additional “Twitter biographies,” focusing again on renowned scientists via a modified form of the double dactyl poem.  

“Rightly and writerly, /
Rachel L. Carson, /
As author and scientist, /
Insights will bring…”
Rachel Louise Carson (1907-1964) was a gifted scientist and author whose books in aquatic biology and conservation science brought scientific insights to a general audience.  She received many accolades for her writing and her scientific work.        

‘“Marine biology; /
Earth-bound ecology; /
Giving a voice to the /
Sounds of the spring.” 
Carson’s gifts for scientific investigation and effective prose were blended throughout her academic path and professional career.  She originally planned to attend college on a writing scholarship, but she turned her attention to science, earning her bachelor’s degree in biology and her master’s degree in marine zoology. 

Given her academic training, Carson then worked for many years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  When she completed a writing project for the agency that was recognized by her editor to be too eloquent to be confined to a bureaucratic brochure, she ultimately submitted the essay to The Atlantic.  Eventually, she turned her attention more fully to science writing, publishing three books about marine science: Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea.  

These last two lines address Carson’s most famous book, Silent Spring, which compiled a wide range of scientific evidence and studies on the danger of overreliance on pesticides and presented that evidence in creatively written, scientifically accurate prose.  She effectively communicated the complex relationships between the environment and human society, and her book inspired many efforts in environmental conservation.  Sadly, Carson did not live to see the immense scope of the impacts that her work would achieve, as she died of cancer in 1964

Science Poetry

Adapting to Circumstances

“Consider the Claisen adapter:
In labwork, an oft-helpful factor
If two tasks, acknowledged,
In tandem accomplished 
Must be, to close synthesis chapter.” 

The next specifically chemistry-themed poem for NaPoWriMo 2020 was a limerick posted on 21 April 2020.  It described the appearance and use of a distinctive piece of glassware from the organic chemistry laboratory.  

“Consider the Claisen adapter…”
Rainer Ludwig Claisen’s name appears many times in an organic chemistry curriculum!  This German chemist worked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (1851-1930) and explored several key organic reactions now known via his name, including the Claisen condensation and the Claisen rearrangement.  The Claisen adapter, also named for him, is a piece of glassware that allows a synthetic chemist to accomplish multiple lab objectives simultaneously.  

“In labwork, an oft-helpful factor /
If two tasks, acknowledged, /
In tandem accomplished /
Must be, to close synthesis chapter.” 
Claisen originally developed a specific piece of glassware called the Claisen flask.  However, the adapter creates more flexibility and facilitates a wider array of set-ups. The adapter is more commonly found in modern glassware kits.  

A Claisen adapter has a characteristic Y-shape: it can be fitted directly to a round-bottom flask at the bottom of the “Y,” and the two arms of the “Y” can each be connected to a different piece of lab equipment.  This means that, for instance, a chemist could run a reaction under reflux while adding a new reagent simultaneously.  Similarly, a reaction mixture could be sampled via thin-layer chromatography (TLC) through while the temperature of that mixture is monitored by a thermometer.  Options vary widely, but their consistently bifurcated natures are highlighted poetically: “two tasks, acknowledged, in tandem accomplished.” 

The website Compound Interest provides an outstanding visual resource regarding the wide array of glassware found in chemistry laboratories. Many of these pieces are named for the scientists who designed them, adding to the complexity of chemistry’s disciplinary vocabulary.

Science Poetry

Spring Forward

“Outside the windows, 
Note ample accrual
Of flowers, birds, sunshine: 
The season’s renewal.  
(Hooke’s Law reminds us, 
As matter of course:
As goes the distance, 
So scales the spring’s force.)”  

As with several preceding Twitter posts, this 20 April 2020 poem celebrated the arrival of spring.  This particular piece did so by using two meanings of the word “spring”: the season and the physical object.  

“Outside the windows, /
Note ample accrual /
Of flowers, birds, sunshine: / 
The season’s renewal.”     
I find winter challenging, and the shift to spring is always a hopeful change of scenery.  By April 2020, most of life was occurring via computer screen, and “social distancing” was a phrase used more and more commonly.   I missed in-person classes, but I also missed the walks through campus to my office, which had previously incorporated chances to see the signs of spring into my daily routine.  Seeing spring arrive “outside the windows” was not the same as directly observing spring in person.         

“(Hooke’s Law reminds us, 
As matter of course:
As goes the distance, 
So scales the spring’s force.)”  
I found an intriguing echo for that sense of pre-2020 nostalgia in the scientific equation known as Hooke’s Law, which describes the action of a coiled spring as a physical object.  Robert Hooke (1635-1703) was an English scientist who made major advances in several STEM fields. 

Hooke’s eponymous law states that Fs = kx.  The force of a spring (Fs) depends on the force constant (k), which represents the stiffness of the spring, and the distance (x) by which the spring is stretched out or compressed.  Chemists use Hooke’s Law and the motion of a spring to model the motion of two atoms chemically bonded together.   

Hooke summarized his law via the statement, “As the extension, so the force,” which I echoed in the final two lines here.  Poetically, I attempted to highlight how the powerful “force” of the newly arrived season was enhanced by the fact that, in the course of a screen-focused workday, its aspects seemed further away. 

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.