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Northwestern University

Poetry and Chemistry

"Two sides of the same coin": Chemical equations and lines of poetry share more than you might think

By Lisa Stein

What could the hard science of chemistry and the expressive art form of poetry possibly have in common? They comprise two different languages — one dealing with molecules and the other with the human heart.

Yet, as Weinberg College faculty, students, alumni and a visiting Nobel Prize-winning chemist discussed at a “Day of Poetry” in January, lines of chemical equations and lines of poetry share more than you might think.

“Chemistry and poetry are two sides of the same coin for me,” said Kat Lee ’17, who graduated with degrees in chemistry and creative writing. “They both study how forces push us around and make us act the way we do.”

In particular, Lee says, her training as a crystallographer has taught her to look for and replicate patterns, a perspective that informs her creative writing.

“I’m always committed in my scientific work and poetry to finding out how things connect to one another,” she added.

A visit from a Nobel Prize winner

Lee was one of several poets and chemists reading and discussing poetry at the event, which featured Mark Ratner, professor emeritus of chemistry; Neil Snider, a visiting scholar in chemistry; and English professor Averill Curdy, among others.

Ratner and chemistry professor Kevin Kohlstedt organized the event around a visit by Roald Hoffman, professor emeritus at Cornell University, winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1981, and a poet and playwright. Although the event was originally planned as a discussion within the chemistry department, Ratner and Kohlstedt decided to broaden its scope and engage Weinberg College poets.

“On one level we wanted to have a discussion on how poetry and science intersect, with science serving both as a topic within the poetry and as a point-of-view from which to discuss poetry. These discussions are all too rare in the science community,” Kohlstedt said.

“On a deeper level, we wanted to ask the question, how does poetry influence the way we think about our understanding of chemistry? And we wanted to explore different avenues for the students to engage in, to give them ways to find out their passions and get out of the lab a little. Grad school can be isolating at times.”

Connections between disciplines

One poet who participated in the event was Curdy, whose poems are inspired by intellectual and scientific history. “It’s valuable to make scientific and aesthetic connections between different disciplines within the humanities, rather than having them walled off from each other,” she said.

Ratner read poems by Wallace Stevens, his favorite poet, and his own work on topics as diverse as waiting in line at airport security and the chaos of existence. At one point Ratner showed a slide that contrasted chemical equations written by himself and those of Hoffman, which were much shorter.

“[Hoffmann] has always been a master of simplification,” Ratner said, laughing.

He added that he was surprised by how many of his colleagues wrote poetry, which highlights the importance of such interdisciplinary events. “The more of them, the better.”



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