Here's a hypothetical liberal arts chemistry exam question
Here’s a hypothetical liberal arts chemistry exam question. Which molecules have had poems written about them? An obvious answer is ethanol, which one way or another has inspired more poetry than any subject except a) true love, b) unrequited love, or possibly c) waving daffodils. But I think we should disqualify this particular molecule on the grounds that it has been intimately bound up with human evolution and the development of civilization, of which a major manifestation is the urge to rhyme. Ever since the first early hominid consumed an over-ripe fruit in which chance fermentation had converted the sugars into ethanol, and found the mind liberated as inhibitions were lost (followed quickly by the use of the legs) this urge has taken hold.
Sung poems are acceptable, as is doggerel - defined as ’crudely or irregularly fashioned verse’ - which, on closer inspection, is what most so-called poetry turns out to be. And the lowest form of life poetically speaking, the limerick - to which most chemists are secretly addicted - is allowed too. To illustrate just how bad poems can get, I was inspired to produce the following. It concerns the bane of the wine drinker’s life: cork taint, whose main active constituent is 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), which renders about five per cent of the wine we buy more or less undrinkable.
A chemical called TCA,
spoils many a wine-lover’s day
For a twentieth drunk
tastes like tincture of skunk,
or panther sweat filtered through hay
If you’re having trouble thinking of suitable answers, let me give you some hints. It would be tricky finding a poem about, say, 2-(3,4,5-trimethoxyphenyl)ethanamine, but if you recall that it is better known as mescaline you may find it easier. The same trick works with other substances such as 3-[2-(dimethylamino)ethyl]-1H-indol-4-ol, or psilocybin.
When it comes to common-or-garden chemicals, how about the well known:
Little Johnny was no chemist.
Little Johnny is no more.
For what he thought was H2O,
And on a higher level, albeit still doggerel, is the immortal Tom Lehrer’s The elements, which consists of the names of every single chemical element cleverly rhymed and sung to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Major General’s song. Listen to it and marvel, but beware of trying to sing along unless you have lungs like a free diver, as finding a place to breathe is tricky.
If you’re still having problems, may I suggest you consult a poet who also happens to be a chemist. And if you think these are few and far between, you couldn’t be more wrong. Mikhail Lomonosov, the eminent 18th century Russian chemist and polymath, was a poet. Early 19th century French chemist, musician, inventor and absinthe drinker Charles Cros somehow found time to be a noted poet. So too did Humphry Davy, which may explain why he used to hang out with Wordsworth and Coleridge. Primo Levi was an industrial chemist as well as a renowned writer and poet.
Coming right up to date, Roald Hoffmann, winner of the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1981, is an accomplished poet. And there are plenty more where they came from. This affinity between chemistry and poetry is hardly surprising, for alchemists used to guard their recipes jealously and would often put them into verse as an aide-m?moire, and to prevent them being stolen.
But, saving the best to last, let me cite Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et decorum est, perhaps the finest and most harrowing poem to emerge from the first world war. It deals with the poison gas phosgene, COCl2, in the lines :-
’Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .’
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