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The Bard of Chemistry

Professor uses poetry to teach the ways of atoms
October 25, 2011

For two years between college and graduate school, Mala Radhakrishnan, PhD ‘07, taught high-school chemistry in San Jose, California. To help her students grasp some of the trickier concepts, she used analogies based on a ­familiar medium: the soap opera.

Her descriptions of atoms and molecules that fall in love and cheat on each other helped her students learn chemistry and even inspired them to create a chemistry-themed mural, which they titled One Half-Life to Live. Radhakrishnan, who had begun writing poetry the previous summer, took a cue from her students’ mural and wrote her first chemistry-themed poem: “As the Magnetic Stir-Bar Turns.”

After leaving San Jose to attend MIT, she continued to write scientific poems. When she realized that her poems could be educational, not just entertaining, she began choosing topics that students tend to struggle with, such as entropy and thermodynamics. Her poems have since appeared in a textbook and a journal, and this year she published them all together in Atomic Romances, Molecular Dances, a collection illustrated by Mary O’Reilly, PhD ‘06. (Read a sample at ­technologyreview.com/chemistry-poetry.)

The book’s chapter headings read like a chemistry text—Periodic Trends, Kinetics, Electrochemistry—but poem titles such as “The Foiling Point of Water” and “Finding Amino” reflect Radhakrishnan’s love of puns. She also has a knack for rhymes, as this stanza from “Sex and Acidity” attests:

She looked in the mirror and stared at her face./It just wasn’t easy being a base./All that she wanted: a shoulder to cry on/And ways to remove her hydroxide ion.

Now an assistant professor of physical chemistry at Wellesley College, ­Radhakrishnan has found that even at the university level, analogies and stories still help get her points across. “Whenever I can, if there is a relevant poem I’ll read it, and the students enjoy it,” she says. “They do remember the concepts, especially if it’s particularly confusing.”

One of her favorites is about an ion that meets another ion on a bus: “The Ion without a Name.” She has a special place in her heart for that one, she says, because about a week after she wrote it, she met her husband-to-be—on a Greyhound bus.

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