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When Helium met Selenium – Chemistry in the Language of Love

Wellesley College’s Mala Radhakrishnan, assistant professor of chemistry, writes poetry that personifies chemistry concepts in fun and relatable ways.

When you’re talking about a romantic connection, love and chemistry go hand-in-hand. When you’re talking about chemistry – like the kind you study in school and experiment with in labs – love is probably not one of the first things you think of… but maybe it should be. After all, elements, atoms, and molecules are just out there looking to connect too, right?

I recently had the pleasure of hearing a few poems written by Mala Radhakrishnan, an assistant professor of chemistry here at Wellesley College. In Mala's poems, atoms and molecules grapple with issues like finding love, making friends, and pursuing their dreams, all on the molecular level.

Mala’s poetry makes chemistry concepts easy to understand and relate to, they’re also clever and fun to read. One poem, called “Moles Away From Equality,” features “Tony,” an atom, who’s trying to get into an exclusive nightclub. With Mala’s permission, I’m including an excerpt from this poem at the end of this post. 

You can hear more about Mala’s work from Mala herself -- she recently spoke to PBS NewsHour from a lab on campus about her new book, "Atomic Romances, Molecular Dances." You can see the whole interview and hear her read one of her poems, “The Radioactive Dating Game,” on the PBS NewsHour Web site.

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An Excerpt From “Moles Away from Equality” by Mala Radhakrishnan

At the end of the elements’ trendiest street
Was a beaker where just getting in was a feat;
The chances for entry were rather elusive;
The “Club Atomic” was very exclusive.

One day ol’ Tony, an atom of tin,
Went to “Club Atomic” to try and get in.
Along with his friends, he offered some dough
To the guard who smugly shook his head “No.”

“Good-bye,” said the guard with an air of odium,
This most formidable atom of sodium.
“You’re nothing but several lowly pests
Since you’re not on the list of pre-approved guests.”

As he started to show them their shameful way out
Tony quickly proceeded to shout,
“So what is this club’s exclusive rule 
That gives you the right to be so cruel?”

“Well, clearly this club is a wonderful place.


We only have access to limited space,


So to stop overcrowding and bottleneck jams,

Per el’ment, we let in but only ten grams.



Ten grams of oxygen, ten of palladium,


The same for bismuth, iron, vanadium,


So on and so forth, you get the idea?


Now get outta here, okay? I’ll see ya!”

“But wait just a moment,” said Tony with care.


Your admissions policy just isn’t fair.


It gives fewer atoms the privilege to pass


When they have a higher atomic mass.

Now, compare us with helium (a mass of four),


And we have a mass of near thirty times more!


For thirty of them who get to have fun,


How many tins do you let in? Just one!

A much better way for you to be doin’ it
Is to choose a different sort of unit.
Don’t go by mass; instead you should try
To cap the number of atoms let by

You could say “per el’ment we’ll let in a dozen,”
But you’ll need to count on a much larger cousin:
The mole, a huge number –it’s almost absurd:
Over six times ten to the twenty-third!

...

Read the rest of the poem in the book preview on the publisher’s site!

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