That’s chemistry

4 August 2018

9:00 AM

4 August 2018

9:00 AM

In Competition No. 3059 you were invited to supply a poem inspired by the periodic table.

The writer and chemist Primo Levi saw poetry in Mendeleev’s system for classifying the chemical elements, describing it as ‘poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo; and come to think of it, it even rhymed!’

Your entries were witty and well-turned, with many a nod to Tom Lehrer, whom I also had in mind when I set this challenge. Honourable mentions go to Frank McDonald’s smart acrostic, as well as to Martin Elster, Nicholas Stone and Christine Michael. The winners, printed below, snaffle £25 each.

Raise a toast to Dmitri, the great Mendeleev
And the atoms he charted his famous array of,
All the stuffs that all stuff’s the ornate interplay of
On landscapes he helped us decipher the lay of.
Toast the pale pastel leisure-wear hues and the
grey of
This table (bulked up a bit since Mendeleev),
Where groups abut periods stacked like parfait of
The properties they illustrate a buffet of.
Toast element 1, hydrogen, that mainstay of
The cosmos, then toast the split-second decay of
The heaviest yet in the scheme Mendeleev
Might not have imagined the long-lasting sway of.
In the patterns he choreographed his ballet of,
Element 118 makes the latest display of
The truth that today’s the enduring heyday of
These columns and rows that recall Mendeleev.
Chris O’Carroll
Dmitri Mendeleev, a Siberian, methodical,
Devised a nifty system called the Table Periodical:
From prototypal hydrogen to mega-mendelevium,
The scope and range of elements, you just would not beleevium!
There are lanathides and actinides, transition metals, halogens
And nasty noble gases emanating awful allergens;
The new kids on the block, the transuranics? Artificial,
With half-lives in the nanosphere, capricious, superficial.
But if you’re bored with thorium or bohrium or barium,
Be of good cheer, for one fine day they’ll synthesise tomlehrium.
Mike Morrison
You’ll find me, periodically, musing on my desk,
A table which is practical and rather picturesque,
I think of it as solid wood which occupies its space
Though scientists inform me that this may not be the case;
They tell me that my writing desk that stands against the wall,
In spite of its appearance isn’t as it seems at all,
It’s made from dancing particles with nothing in between:
C6, H1, O8, N7 and, lastly, P15:
An oscillating mobile mass, a nebula of sorts,
A vague, amorphous galaxy of specks by all reports,
So small that they’re invisible, intangible as well,
Just atoms with their molecules as far as one can tell.
Thus, knowing that my desk is in an insubstantial state,
I pray that it continues to support a poet’s weight,
Since, hoping that these elements don’t suddenly disperse,
This periodic table’s all I have for writing verse.
Alan Millard
My name is Rutherfordium,
A lab rat’s work of art,
Synthetic as an urban myth,
A transuranic number with
A radioactive heart.
While politics and physics fought
A contest for my name,
I slotted in at 104
Throughout the decades of Cold War,
That nerve-destroying game.
The West’s big hitter, Rutherford —
A Lord, Nobel-anointed —
Had mojo from beyond the grave.
The Russian Kurchatov, though brave,
Was cruelly outpointed.
Basil Ransome-Davies
Faust dabbled with the elements and conjured up Old Nick
who waved a pact before him, saying ‘Fausty, take your pick.’
The devil’s in the detail, yet the small print passed Faust by;
he signed in blood — his own — and said ‘I see that you’ll supply
the fleshpots of debauchery, I’m done with necromancy,
a girl who’s hot and hits the spot is what I really fancy!’
With relish, he cavorted with the sultan’s concubines
and countless vestal virgins, while he guzzled vintage wines.
In time the devil claimed his dues; ‘Your soul! It’s in the pact,
the signature is in your blood — group ‘O’ to be exact.’
Said Faust ‘Why did I sign up to this dodgy mésalliance;
eternal torment in the flames? I should have stuck to science.
Alas, if I had spurned a life degenerate, unstable,
and studied all the symbols in the periodic table,
turned Pb into Au — that’s transmuting lead to gold —
I’d live in comfort. All that’s ended, since my soul’s been sold.’
Sylvia Fairley


No. 3062: where there’s a will

You are invited to submit a Shakespearean-style soliloquy (of up to 16 lines) that a contemporary politician might have felt moved to deliver. Please email (wherever possible)entries to by midday on 15 August.

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