Anyone who has studied chemistry at any level has seen the periodic table. Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev published the periodic table of elements 150 years ago. In his iconic display, he laid out elements in rows based on their atomic numbers, and by design, the elements fell into columns or groups with shared properties. This triumph of scientific classification is something to marvel at, but the array of numbers, the symbols and the Latin names can also be intimidating to students.
A chemistry teacher, gifted in the art of verse, encourages us to think of the periodic table of elements as a cast of dramatic characters. As the head of a research lab at Wellesley College in the U.S., Prof. Mala Radhakrishnan publishes regularly in top science journals. She is the author of two books of humorous verse: Atomic Romances, Molecular Dances and Thinking, Periodically. They are meant for students of science and science enthusiasts. “Chemistry is drama in which we can all revel, / A soap opera on the molecular level.” This is an example of one of her couplets.
When did you start thinking of elements as dramatic characters?
In the two years between my undergraduate years at Harvard University and graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), from 2000 to 2002, I taught high school chemistry in Silicon Valley through a non-profit organisation called Teach for America.
A colleague at the school said she taught her students about chemical reactions like synthesis, decomposition, and single replacement reactions by comparing them to a marriage, a divorce, and a “homewrecker” situation.
That bit of personification made a light bulb go off in my head. I began to think of chemistry as one big soap opera happening on a molecular level. I started using personification and storytelling to engage my students. One of my first poems was about a sodium atom that walks into a bar to find a halogen atom to bond with.
Personification to poetry — how did that happen?
The summer I was teaching high school, I went to a poetry slam for the first time. Performance poetry was so much more exciting than reading words on a page. I wanted to experiment with this form. Poetry flows naturally when one writes about something about which one is passionate. At that point, I had suddenly become very passionate about creatively and clearly communicating chemistry. So, it just seemed like a natural thing to put my chemistry “stories” to verse.
When did you start performing poetry?
The catalyst was an amazing venue called the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, MA, a neighbourhood bar and grill, somewhere between Harvard and MIT, which has this weekly poetry slam. At first, I went there and listened to others’ poems. What I found wonderful was the wide range of topics people wrote and spoke about. It felt like a very accepting place where new voices were welcomed and supported. When I read my first chemistry-themed poem there, it was received incredibly well.
This was not a chemistry classroom — it was a completely different audience.
True. But people feel good when they understand things that they perceive to be complicated — especially when there’s humour in there too. By humanising chemistry, relating it to things we are familiar with — parties, relationships, personal struggles, etc., — and making it less threatening by using rhyming verse and humour, people can appreciate, understand and enjoy it. So yes, they were quite receptive, especially because, to be honest, verse about chemistry is somewhat unique.
I’d write a new poem each week and it would always get many laughs. It was through this open mic that I become known as ‘the chemistry poet’. I would use words like ‘radioactive,’ ‘exponential,’ and ‘enantiomer’. My poems were scientifically accurate.
So, you now had material for a book.
I wrote poems to entertain the crowd, but I quickly realised their educational value. A lot of concepts can be made accessible through personification. For example, water has a higher boiling point than alcohol due to its having stronger interactions between its molecules, making it harder for those molecules to separate from each other and become a gas. To make this clear, I wrote about how a water molecule just wanted to “fly” in the air but couldn’t due to those interactions, and how he sadly watched methanol molecules “fly” as the temperature increased. There is a happy ending to this poem titled ‘The Foiling Point of Water’.
Once I had a critical mass of work, close to 50 poems, I put together my first full-length book in 2011. I explained chemical concepts through narrative verse. In my second book, which came out last year, I speak of everyday events in the language of chemistry — this time through couplets. Both collections are illustrated by Mary O’Reilly.
What are some of the best reactions you’ve had to your poems?
Students and teachers comment on how the poems have helped them solidify concepts or just how they enjoy them very much. From non-scientists, I’ll sometimes get comments like “I wish I could’ve had your poetry when I was learning chemistry,” or, “I finally get it!”
Are science-themed poems catching on?
In recent years, I have seen a lot more “intersection” between poetry and science — and between the arts and science in general, which is a wonderful thing. We need to creatively communicate science, not only to bring humanity and creativity to science, but to better humanise scientists. Writing poetry can be a way to bring feeling and emotion into the process of doing science, which in our society is often seen as a very impersonal thing. I am very glad to see more people creatively expressing both their science and their emotions and feelings about doing science.
The writer is a Boston-based science journalist.