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Vol. 27 No. 1
January-February 2005

Fun and Games in Chemistry: On Scientoons, and Other Light-Hearted Mind-Benders that Help Us Appreciate Chemistry

by D. Balasubramanian

Teaching chemistry and encouraging people to appreciate chemistry are made easier and livelier by using “fun” and games, such as cartoons, poems, puzzles, plays, and skits. This article was triggered by a set of science cartoons created by a fellow chemist from India, which led me into looking at similar and related attempts by a few others, particularly in chemistry. Even a cursory search of the Internet has led to a wealth of interesting examples. What follows is, as they say, the tip of the iceberg. Which, incidentally, led me to the site that asked the intriguing question: Will ice float in boiling water? The answer, I found to my surprise and enlightenment, is that it does indeed float on boiling water. One Mr. John Link actually tried this and found it to do so. The reason is that the density of water at 100°C is 0.958 g cm-3 while that of ice is 0.917 <>.

The sections that follow describe plays, poems, anagrams, palindromes, cartoons, and crossword puzzles that involve chemistry.

As Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffman have demonstrated, some plays can also be intellectually stimulating and challenging. Their notable play Oxygen asks the audience to make up its own mind about who should be given credit for the discovery of oxygen: Joseph Priestly, Antoine Lavoisier, or Wilhelm Scheele. The play also highlights the unappreciated contributions of women in science, such as Lavoisier’s wife who played a key role in his work. Following up on this idea, the play includes a “Retro-Nobel Prize,” where a woman heads the award committee to decide who is the true discoverer of oxygen.

A scene from the play Oxygen, Antoine Lavoisier and his wife Marie Anne <>.

Then there is the three-act play The van Deemter Equation by Christa Colyer of Wake Forest University on high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). The performance involves scores of participants, with act one on Eddy Diffusion, act two on Longitudinal Diffusion, and act three called Rate of Mass Transfer. This play also becomes a teaching tool, since it asks questions regarding the mobile and stationary phase, the role of solute molecules and so forth.

[Incidentally, the van Deemter equation itself is written as:

H = A + B/u + C u

with A, the eddy diffusion (or multipath term); B, the longitudinal diffusion; C, the resistance to mass transfer; and u the velocity of mobile phase.]

On a lighter note, chemistry has found its way into poems. Professor Steven Hardinger of UCLA challenged his students to write about chemical concepts in the Japanese Haiku verse style (three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively), which resulted in some gems. Here are three of them:

Brönsted says “Give H.” Lewis says “Take electrons.” Acids will do both!

Base asks the acid, “Aren’t you related to me? I’m your conjugate.”

Molecular angst, is caused by torsional strain, Rotate sigma bond.

Here are some chemistry poems by Dr. Brenna E. Lorenz, Division of Natural Sciences, University of Guam. They are not done in Haiku, but in the more traditional English rhyme and meter.

Old Man Stokes
Old man Stokes was a gentleman fine
Who lived beside the Raleigh line;
Old anti-Stokes, his existence denied,
Lived never-the-less on the other side.


With orbitals of sp3
I want to make a bond with thee,
Together we, covalently,
Will translate through eternity!

Oh, carbon atom, we respond
With our s orbitals, to bond!

Ode to Pyridine
Ah, sweet pyridine, thy vagrant scent
Doth waft up from my test tube, redolent,
And venture forth, in tendrils of perfume
To every distant corner of the room.

No hood on earth is there that can suppress
The wand’rings of thy cyclic happiness;
No hood is there that can contain or hide
Thy aromatic eagerness inside.

No prof or student, passing through the room,
Can quite evade the tendrils of thy fume,
Nor can they, drawing breath, stay unaware,
That thy six-membered rings pervade the air.

Come, my sweet amine, no more conspire
To fill this humble lab of mine entire,
Instead, let love thy pungency efface
In some fair Lewis acid’s fond embrace.

Yes, lend her thy electrons, sweet amine,
That lie outside thy circle, lone and lean,
And stretch thy bonds in themomotive glee
In some wild acid’s hungry company!

These are favorites of crossword buffs, but they also have been used in science, and in particular chemistry. Look at some ingenious molecular anagrams.

Rick Rothstein rearranged the letters of “Acetylsalicylic acid/Acetominophen” to yield “Typically, a ‘cool act’ in ache medicines,” and “Economically cheap, it isn’t a delicacy.”

“Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” becomes: “‘Encode idea by coil’ is crux” in this anagram by Mike Mesterton-Gibbons.
Larry Brash’s anagram of “Tetrahydrocannabinol” becomes “Inhaled, contrary to ban.”

Rick Rothstein created a number of anagrams from “Lysergic acid diethylamide”: “Idyllic images: the icy dread”; “Idyllic imagery; is detached”; “My hysterical glee? I did acid”; “This idyllic mirage decayed”; and “Dreamy stage, icy chill; I died.”

According to Marilynn Dunker of the Special Libraries Association, University of Washington, there are hardly any palindromes in chemistry names. The best I could come up with was “No yarn in rayon.” I am sure some readers will be able to better this poor one. However, when we write out the chemical structures, particularly of symmetric molecules (starting from ethane), we find palindromes. Of course, the double helical sequences of DNA abound in palindromic sequences that are hydrolyzed by specific enzymes.

Cartoon copyrighted by Sydney Harris, printed with permission.

The well known master in the genre of science cartoons is Sydney Harris. He has a whole Web site
<> devoted to his art, which is thoroughly enjoyable. We reproduce just one of his here (page 9).

Even in the comic strips of daily newspapers, there are occasional gems. The one I like is from “Calvin and Hobbes,” where the ever-creative boy Calvin decides to open a shop for devising better scientific names. He is disgusted with the fact that scientists think space is full of mysterious, invisible mass and end up calling it by the unromantic name of “dark matter.” He opens a consulting firm to do better. Then there is the series by Mark Parisi called “Off the Mark” in which he spoofs science topics. A particularly topical one involves a super-hi-tech machine that keeps on flashing “12:00” (see below).

While these three examples are universal, cartoonists use their medium to highlight, or make light of, matters of the moment or matters relevant to their own immediate society or place. The famous political cartoonist of India, R.K. Laxman makes fun of Indian science in his cartoons (below). And in Pradeep K. Srivastava, of the Chemical Tech-nology Division of the Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow, India, we have a fellow chemist who has initiated what he calls “Scientoons.” In one series, he takes a look at, and occasionally makes a different interpretation of, some scientific terms and concepts (bottom right). More of Scientoons can be viewed at <>.

Periodic Table Challenge

How many words can you make using the chemical
symbols in the Periodic Table?

You may use the symbols more than once in a word, but you cannot mix up the letters. The symbols must be used as they appear in the Periodic Table. You may also use words with only one or two letters as well as the names of people, places, and other elements. You must provide the symbols (in correct format) as well as the word.


He + At = Heat

N + O + B + O + Dy = Nobody

Copyrighted by Tracy Trimpe, printed with permission.

One of the more interesting sets of crossword puzzles in chemistry can be accessed at the Web site < /funstuff /xword>, which has crossword puzzles in various topics such as metals extraction, metals and ores, chemistry apparatus, acids, alkalis and salts, organic chemistry, chemical families, rates of reactions, Haber process, hard rocks, and fossil fuels. Another interesting Web site, which has puzzles in many branches of science, is <
classpuzzle.html>. A particularly interesting puzzle here is called the Periodic Table Challenge, which asks, “How many words can you make with chemical symbols?” Apparently someone made as many as 1458 words.

A chemist who can better this record, and also better Mr. Rick Rothstein above in his anagrams, will not only be a better chemist but also a man/woman of letters!

D. Balasubramanian <[email protected]> is a professor at the L. V. Prasad Eye Institute, in Hyderabad, India. He is a member of the IUPAC Subcommittee on Public Understanding of Chemistry.

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