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Chemical Eye on Songs of Innocence and Experience


April 29, 2009

April is National Poetry Month. So to pay homage to my favorite poet and extol some of the rhyme and reason of chemistry, I would like to share two poems.

The first is by John Updike, who died this January, but whose poetry has helped many of my students see Erlenmeyer flasks as gilded frames of a sort. The second is by Tommy Talmage - who is one of those students.

jpg Songs of Innocence and Experience

Not a tyger's eye, but certainly from a distant deep.



The atom is a crystal
of a sort; the lattices
its interlockings form
lend a planarity most pleasing
to the abysses and cliffs, much magnified,
of (for example) salt and tourmaline.
Arise order,
out of necessity!
Mock, you crystals,
with all appearance of chiselled design,
our hope of a Grand Artificer.
The graceful, layered frost-ferns the midnight elves
left on the Shillington windowpanes
for my morning astonishment were misinformation,
as is
the glittering explosion of tinted quartz
discovered in earth like a nugget of thought,
buried evidence
crying out for release to the workman's pick,
tangled hexagonal hair of an angel interred
where it fell, our earth still molten, in the Fall.

When, on those anvils at the center of stars,
and those even more furious anvils
of the exploding supernovae,
the heavy elements were beaten together
to the atomic number of 94
and the crystalline metals with their easily lost
valence electrons arose,
their malleability and conductivity
made Assyrian goldsmithing possible
and most of New York City.

Stendhal thought that love
should be likened to a bare branch crystallized
by a winter in the depths of the salt mines of Hallein:
"The tiniest twigs, no bigger
than a tomtit's claw, are spangled with an infinite
number of shimmering, glistening crystals."
Our mathematics and hope of Heaven
alike look to crystals;
their arising, the mounting
of molecules one upon the other, suggests
that inner freezing whereby inchoate
innocence compresses a phrase of art.
Music rises in its fixed lattices
and its cries of aspiration chill our veins
with snowflakes of blood;
the mind grapples up an inflexible relation
and the stiff spheres chime--
themselves, the ancients thought, all crystal.
In this seethe of hot muck there is something else:
the ribs of an old dory emerge from the sand,
the words set their bevelled bite on the page,
the loved one's pale iris flares in silent assent,
the electrons leap, leaving positive ions
as the fish scales of moonlight show us water's perfect dance.
Steno's Law, crystallography's first:
the form of crystal admits no angle but its own.


There are strange things, in the color and the shape of things that seem natural.

Things that maybe thinkers don't think about. Because thinkers already know what they want to know. Nothing is really taken for granted if the process doesn't strike you, but what's not striking about a sea of crayons?

And then the thinker thinks about it and it knows you, like you thought you knew what yellow was. But come to find it's really lycopene. That your blue skies and red dyes are really anthocyanin. That your carrot cake is full of carotene.

Old Man Winter fades away under the anesthesia when porphyrin pops into your head. Thinker, thinking now. Realizing that all those thoughts you had about leaves dying from frostbite, and colors fading from age, have fresh glossy tombstones, thinking.

Thinking, you find, in a text, or a question, or a curiosity, that it all falls in the light of the sun. How close she is, how far she is, paints the armies held bough by bough in suspension. Molecular sugars and your pool's pH hold the weight of decision and the ingredients for change. When one goes up, one goes down. See-saw.

Finally, off a quip and whim, you stop thinking and you know


Chlorophyll is the most abundant porphyrin in plants

pH levels in soil affect the production of anthocyanin which ultimately affects the pigment of a leaf

The intensity of the sun's light is what really splashes
those broad strokes of color, not Old Man Winter

Your books are right. These things, natural things, strike as they should. It all falls in the light.


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Chemical Eye On... Columns by Preston MacDougall

Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

Preston MacDougall ©2009

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