Adventures in Ethics and Science

Chemists can be quite a literary bunch. Consider Primo Levi. Carl Djerassi. And, of course, Nobel Prize – winning chemist Roald Hoffman. Below the fold, Hoffman’s poem “An unusual state of matter”:

In the beach sands of Kerala,
abraded from the gneiss, in the stream sands of North Carolina
one finds monazite, the solitary
mineral. In its crystalline beginning
there was order, there was a lattice.
And the atoms – cerium, lanthanum,
thorium, yttrium, phosphate – danced
round their predestined sites,
tethered by the massless springs
of electrostatics
and by their neighbors’ bulk.
They vibrated,
and sang
in quantized harmony.
to absent listeners, to me.

But the enemy is within.
The radioactive thorium’s
nervous nuclei explode
in the random thrum
of a hammer
of no Norse god.

The invisible searchlights
of hell, gamma rays,
flash down the lattice.
Alpha particles, crazed nuclear
debris, are thrust on megavolt
missions of chance destruction.
The remnant atom, transmuted, recoils,
freeing itself from its lattice point,
cannonballs awry through
a crowded dance floor.
There are no exits to run to.
In chain collisions of disruption
neighbors are knocked from their sites.
The crystal swells from once limpid
long-range, short-range order
to yellow-brown amorphousness.
undefine the metamict state.

(From W. Carleton and C. Bond, eds., Bound, Cornell University, 1986.)


  1. #1 RPM
    April 26, 2006

    Hoffman was my intro chem prof first semester freshman year. The dude rocks. In addition to all the acids, bases, and other stuff you do in intro chem, he made us read Primo Levy’s The Periodic Table and write a short paper on it. He reminded me of my grandparents (my grandmother, actually, which was kinda weird), so that may be one of the reasons I found him so amicable.

  2. #2 Thomas Winwood
    April 26, 2006

    Phosphate is an atom?

  3. #3 Bill Hooker
    April 26, 2006

    Not just chemists — consider Erasmus Darwin, physicians William Carlos Williams and Lewis Thomas (after whom an annual prize is named which “honors the scientist as poet“), or bacteriologist Ronald Ross, an enthusiastic (if not terribly good) composer of verse who discovered that Plasmodium spp. transmitted by mosquito bite cause malaria:

    This day relenting God
    Hath placed within my hand
    A wondrous thing; and God
    Be praised. At his command,
    Seeking his secret deeds
    With tears and toiling breath,
    I find thy cunning seeds,
    O million-murdering Death.
    I know this little thing
    A myriad men will save,
    O Death, where is thy sting?
    Thy victory, O Grave?

    What an excellent theme for National Poetry Month.

  4. #4 Elia Diodati
    May 3, 2006

    *Mock horror* How could you forget that most famoustest of them all, Isaac Asimov? (OK he did biochemistry, but still…)

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