Culture

Ode to the Periodic Table

Four elements in verse.

By Heather Webster | December 29, 2020

Heather Webster views science as one of the great human achievements. Her writing is inspired by the universal language of science. She currently uses poetry to share both her fascination with the elements and the insights that have resulted from their organization into the periodic table.


Jewels

Beryl crystals grow in granite
clear ones were cut for lenses
rainbow colours prized as gems
gold, pink or red
with the best green labelled ‘emerald’.
Blue aquamarines
promised safety at sea, good weather
luck for Romans sailors.

Not so lucky for miners
and gem cutters
this strong and brittle element
is deadly when inhaled
sweet like sugar but carcinogenic.

In the race to win World War II
thousands of aerospace workers
were knowingly exposed to beryllium
sacrificed for the greater good.

Even Enrico Fermi
lauded for his chemistry skills
shredded his lungs with beryllium
when an experiment went wrong.

Does flying high in aerospace materials
remind beryllium of its origin
deep in the cores of nebulae
where spallation broke atoms apart
and hurled them across the galaxies?

periodic_table_in_p2676w099_0_hh63sw40w_download_medium.jpeg

periodic table

Glass slide of a spiral-shaped periodic system of elements invented by Swedish physicist Johannes Rydberg in 1913, redrawn by chemist Edward Mazurs for his book Types of Graphic Representation of the Periodic System of Chemical Elements (1957). 

Science History Institute

Glazes

Ancient Chinese potters used
borax glazes which braved the heat
and helped colours hold their shine.
The potters kiln a weak imitation
of the stellar crucibles of creation.

Ever keen for knowledge
the father of mineralogy
Georg Agricola experimented
mixing borax with iron ore
to improve its workability.

Clever chemists boiled and baked
but this element stayed well hidden
until Humphry Davey
finally found this metalloid’s form
burning bright with a lavender flame.

Plants use boron for strong cell walls
but too much ruins roots.
It makes tough glass and plates
robust under volcanic heat.

My mother used borax
to poison lines of invading ants
and boil our sheets to lily white.

periodic_table_consisting_k3569490p_0_zw12z583r_download_medium.jpeg

periodic table

Glass slide showing a perspective view of a lemniscate-shaped periodic system of elements originated by Alois Bilecki in 1915, redrawn by chemist Edward Mazurs for his book Types of Graphic Representation of the Periodic System of Chemical Elements (1957). 

Science History Institute

Explosive Fertiliser

Nitrogen wraps around us
a silent partner in the air we breathe.
It’s lazy and not keen to dance
until shocked by lightening
or transformed underground
by bacteria housed in the roots
of legumes, peas, clover and wattles.

In Australia’s leached land
where nitrogen is scarce
sunshine is spun
into sweet nectar treats
bribing insects, birds and bats
to deliver nitrogen-rich pollen
to speed fertilisation and speciation.

In days now long past
cities collected urine
to manufacture gunpowder
set dyes, scour wool.
Now factories electrify air
forcing nitrogen to nitrate
for bombs, explosives and missiles.

Nitrogen fertiliser seems more benign
yet danger mounts
as it’s scattered about
nitrogen runoff ruins reefs
and clogs lazy rivers
with toxic algae blooms.

periodic_table_in_k3569489x_0_rr171x798_download_medium.jpeg

periodic table

Glass slide of a periodic system of elements in the shape of an irregular spiral, drawn by chemist Edward Mazurs for his book Types of Graphic Representation of the Periodic System of Chemical Elements (1957). The design is unattributed.

Science History Institute

Flux and Teeth

Fluorides in Earth’s mantle
are agents provocateur
changing events at a distance
without seeming to be involved.
Used as flux in smelting
it makes other metals flow.

This Machiavellian element
attacks many metals.
Unravelling its essential form
a poisonous pale yellow-green gas
cost many experimenter’s lives.

Fluorite compounds are friendly
many invented for space travel
now familiar as Teflon
slippery cooking pans,
 for cooling fridges
insulating plumbers’ tape.

Dissolved in drinking water
fluorine grows strong teeth
helps children
avoid the dentist’s drill.

But fluorocarbons
propelling spray from cans
punch holes in the ozone layer
exposing earth open to bombardment
by cosmic radiation.
Damage at a distance.