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Archive for September 9th, 2022

periodic table

[with poems celebrating the Periodic Table by Mary Soon Lee]

Maybe I was six I when fell in love with chemistry. Dad perched us on a chair by the sink to watch him mix Sodium Bicarb and Vinegar. Fizzy bubbles! Do it again!

NaHCO3 + CH3COOH = CO2 + NaCH3COO + H2O

I would definitely have been in love by eight when Dad took us out in the front yard for an experiment: a little too much Drano in a Coke bottle, add some water, snap on a balloon and stand back! Bob and I cheered as the balloon inflated (hydrogen gas, stand way back), and even louder when the too much Drano boiled up in the bottle and ate the balloon. It was quite a few years later that I worked out the reaction: Sodium Hydroxide (lye) and water plus metallic Aluminum (the shiny bits in Drano) produce Hydrogen (as in add Oxygen and BOOM!) plus Sodium Tetrahydroaluminate.

2Al + 2NaOH + 6H2O = 2Na[Al(OH)4] + 3H2

By twelve I was hanging out in the back aisles of drug stores where in those days they sold real chemicals like Potassium Permanganate and Sodium Nitrate. Magic trick – slowly drip Hydrogen Peroxide into a deep purple Permanganate solution, bubbles, bubbles, suddenly the color disappears! And not quite what you’d call magic – almost blowing up my room after figuring out the recipe for gunpowder. (Mom rushes in and cries, “I heard an explosion!” I say, “It didn’t explode. It just burned real fast.”)

2 KMnO4 + 3 H2SO4 + 5H2O2 = 2 MnSO4 + K2SO4 + 5O2 + 8H2O
[add a little Sulfuric Acid as catalyst]

Well, of course I became a Chem Major. What else? Then Biochem in Med School; renal physiology remains a bit of a head scratcher and I’d have to crack the books again, but who doesn’t want to know why pee tastes salty? I’ve traded in my blowing-things-up days for making snow volcanoes for the grandkids (tip: more Bicarb and less dishwashing liquid). Nevertheless one thing cannot fail to bring back the old love pangs – just a glimpse of the Periodic Table and I’m leaning over that fizzing sink again.

I’ll wait another day to extol Mendeleev; today belongs to Mary Soon Lee. She has created an entirely new poetic form, the Elemental (my terminology): 3 lines like haiku but without kigo or kireji, call it perhaps senryu, but elementally and intrinsically conjoined with Nature. Deep Nature. Every poem is devoted to one member of the Periodic Table.

Mary Soon Lee’s book Elemental Haiku was this year’s Father’s Day present from my daughter and son-in-law. I started fizzing as soon as I saw the cover. It is very hard to narrow down one’s favorite among the 118 elements but I’ve selected four that stand out: Sodium, so maligned but essential to firing synapses; Magnesium and Manganese, those rival cousins; Neodymium, both for its cool name like some god of the 22nd century and also because I love strong magnets. Rather than transcribe the Elementals I’ve scanned each page to provide their full effect.

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Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, but has lived in Pittsburgh for over twenty years. Her two latest books are from opposite ends of the poetry spectrum: Elemental Haiku, containing haiku for each element of the periodic table (Ten Speed Press, 2019) and The Sign of the Dragon, an epic fantasy with Chinese and Mongolian elements (JABberwocky Literary Agency, 2020). She also has degrees in mathematics and computer science from Cambridge University and gained an M.Sc. in astronautics and space engineering from Cranfield University.

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periodic bow

 

2020-03-07 Doughton Park Tree

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