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Culture House Daily

Spectator competition winners: finding the poetry in science

6 August 2018

10:00 AM

6 August 2018

10:00 AM

The writer and chemist Primo Levi saw poetry in Mendeleev’s periodic table, 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!’ So I thought it might be an idea to challenge you to write a poem inspired by it.

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

Chris O’Carroll
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.

Mike Morrison
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?
With half-lives in the nanosphere, capricious,

But if you’re bored with thorium or bohrium or
Be of good cheer, for one fine day they’ll
      synthesise tomlehrium.

Alan Millard
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
C6, H1, O8, N7 and, lastly, P15:
An oscillating mobile mass, a nebula of sorts,
A vague, amorphous galaxy of specks by all
So small that they’re invisible, intangible as well,
Just atoms with their molecules as far as one can
Thus, knowing that my desk is in an insubstantial
I pray that it continues to support a poet’s weight,
Since, hoping that these elements don’t suddenly
This periodic table’s all I have for writing verse.

Basil Ransome-Davies
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.

Sylvia Fairley
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
a girl who’s hot and hits the spot is what I really
With relish, he cavorted with the sultan’s
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
Said Faust ‘Why did I sign up to this dodgy
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.’

Your next challenge is to submit a Shakespearean-style soliloquy (of up to 16 lines) that a contemporary politician might have felt moved to deliver. Please email entries to by midday on 15 August.

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