A chemistry poem

The initial response of the Fourth Form Chemistry Group (14/15-year-olds) to the prospect of writing a chemistry poem for homework was one of bemused horror and disbelief. Perhaps it was a joke; after all, surely poems belong to English lessons, not chemistry. It’s just not done!

Yet it was done, and several poems composed by the students are illustrated. It was a novel venture because the students perceived the task as being outside the accepted subject area.

The topic concerned ammonia, a compound made from hydrogen and nitrogen. Chemists use ammonia to make fertilisers. Without fertilisers insufficient food would be grown and there would be mass starvation on an unimaginable scale.

The students had completed their work on ammonia chemistry: the relevant reading had been done, the appropriate notes made, practicals performed (and written up), videos seen and worksheets completed. The work had been discussed, learned and tested.

But unless one is careful, science can present its “Mr Hyde” negative image, particularly to the non-scientists: cold, uncaring, removed, without feeling, depersonalised, dehumanised, and lacking in aesthetics, sensitivity and creativity. The idea of writing a poem about ammonia was an attempt to provide a framework in which qualities and skills not normally associated with chemistry could be developed to advantage.

In order to achieve success at writing chemistry poems, students should have an appropriate level of linguistic skills, together with the necessary chemical knowledge and understanding. The students attitude is important; they should be interested and have high motivation. It helps if they can relate to the subject matter because it is relevant, useful and meaningful. Granting all these prerequisites, there is still no guarantee of success because, like problem solving, it is a multistage process involving creative thinking.

A poem represents a very personal statement by the student, the culmination of a complex, internalised process. Unlike traditional chemistry which is objective, a subjective decision is required to decide the value and usefulness of this exercise.

Here are some of the results. Full credit goes to all the students who participated.

The Haber process

Dry nitrogen and hydrogen gas,

Over a finely divided iron catalyst are passed.

The gases in ratio one to three,

At a pressure of 300 and a temperature of 450 degrees C.

Ammonia gas is produced,

From its choking smell this is deduced.

From the ammonia is made ammonium sulphate,

And also the fertiliser, ammonium nitrate.

Without these chemicals nine in ten would die

Including, probably, you and I.

So when eating your carrots, cabbage and potatoes,

Don’t forget that man, Fritz Haber.

– Martin Perry

Nitrogen chemistry

Haber was the man who learnt how to produce large amounts
of ammonia,

Which unlike nitrogen dioxide, does not cause septic

Fertilisers are made by using nitrogen from the air,

Which replace the nitrogen in the soil which is not there.

Nitrogen combines with metals to form nitrides,

Some when heated form oxides,

Damp red litmus paper turns blue,

As it should do,

Because this is the ammonia test.

I’ll just end by saying, I think Chemistry’s the best.

– Harjiban Rai

An Ode to Haber

We need to eat food other than meat,

This is a fact that we can’t cheat,

If left to nature we would see,

That we can’t rely on the fruit of a tree.

Since 1900 the world population has increased,

If the crop yield remained natural, production would have ceased.

So today there’s a scientist we have to commend,

For without him, the Earth would be at a loose end,

Because of the clever ideas formed in his head,

We have to thank him for not being dead.

The man in question, his name you can guess,

To give you a clue, he invented the “Haber Process”.

He used nitrogen and hydrogen to produce NH3,

Thanks to Haber there’s food for you and me.

Ammonia is used as a fertiliser to meet plants’ needs,

And as an explosive it fulfils men’s greeds.

Whether it is good or whether it is bad,

One thing is sure, as an explosive it makes us sad.

– Christopher Reed

Poem on the Haber Process

In Germany once                             a man named Haber,

Decided to take                                Ammonia a step farther.

He took one volume                       of dry nitrogen,

Together with       three                   volumes of hydrogen.

The catalyst          was iron             promoted by alumina,

So quickly               produced was the gas ammonia.

The ammonia              produced was liquefied and collected,

And any gases                 left were re-used.

Air is the                                source of nitrogen,

And natural gas                       is the source of hydrogen.

Ammonia can be used               as a refrigerant,

And as a fertiliser it                         can help plants.

Gerald Smith (written in the shape of a “N”)

(Reprinted from Chem 13 News, April 1989page 12.)