I can’t remember what age I was when I first learned about the periodic table, but ever since, it has been both familiar and fascinating. In the periodic table, the elements—building blocks of the universe—are marshaled in order of increasing atomic number (the number of protons in their atoms). Then the elements are laid out in rows (known as periods) and columns (known as groups) that reflect underlying atomic structure.
Dmitri Mendeleev, father of the periodic table, devised his first version in 1869. He arranged the elements so that those with similar behavior would line up, leaving gaps in the spots where no known element seemed to belong. A few years later, the first of these missing elements was discovered by Paul-Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran, who named it gallium. Now, one and a half centuries after Mendeleev’s first version, the periodic table contains some 118 known elements, several of them discovered only in the last couple of decades.
One day in December 2016, with no grand plan in mind, I sat down and wrote a haiku for the first of these elements, hydrogen. Hydrogen has an atomic number of one, meaning its atoms contain just one proton, yet hydrogen is part of water and is essential to life: Hydrogen
Your single proton
Water. Life. Star fuel.
Having written a haiku for hydrogen, I wrote haiku for helium and lithium, the second and third elements in the periodic table. The next day, I came up with haiku for the next several elements, and the project acquired purpose. Progressing in order through the periodic table, I wrote a haiku for each element in turn. Months later, I reached the end of the periodic table, and added one final haiku for element 119, as yet undiscovered as I write this.
This book contains those haiku, together with brief notes on each one. I call them haiku, because I followed a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, and because I tried to capture something of the succinctness, the juxtaposition, the surprise of traditional Japanese haiku. But these are not the tiny, beautifully wrought haiku of Basho or Buson or Issa. There is no cherry blossom to be found, no seasonal references at all. Instead, there are the elements: their chemistry, physics, history.
These Elemental Haiku
first appeared, without the accompanying notes, in the August 4, 2017, issue of Science
. They were not the first poetic take on the periodic table, and I hope they won’t be the last.
To close this introduction, here is a poem that I wrote as I neared the end of the periodic table. Unlike the haiku themselves, it’s a longer, less structured poem, reflecting on my experience writing the elemental haiku, my journey through the periodic table. The Periodic Table of Elements
I set out in December,
but the way clear.
the divided couple
of the first row.
Then lithium to neon, the second row,
eight names I’d memorized in high school,
their number, nature, neighbors
well known to me.
Past sodium, magnesium—
that old familiar leap across to aluminum—
from there a quick run through to argon.
The third row done, so soon.
I thirsted for more, for truth,
for primal facts. Firm. Fixed.
Potassium, calcium to the left
of the landmark columns
of transition metals.
The new year turned. I came to zinc,
gallium, germanium, slid on to krypton.
Stood at the end of the fourth row,
caught my breath.
Walked into the eternal expanse
of the fifth row, its rules ordained
by the powers that underpin the universe.
the leaders of the fifth row.
Yttrium, zirconium, niobium, molybdenum.
The milestone of technetium: first of the radioactive elements,
their atoms randomly transmuting,
but their own original character
constant as the prime numbers,
certain as arithmetic.
January almost complete
before I reached xenon,
the fifth row’s right anchor,
noble, steadying, sure.
the lanthanides lined up
beneath the main table.
Their electron configurations,
isotopes, melting points, temperaments.
What we learn alters us.
What we choose to learn.
I spent February in the company
of the thirty-two members
of the sixth row.
Rhenium, osmium, iridium.
Platinum’s deep treasure.
the seventh row ahead of me,
the final partial revelations of humanity’s hard-won knowledge.
Elements summoned in laboratories,
nuclear reactors, particle accelerators
by acolytes attempting to answer
that which had never
beyond a door we have not opened,
the oracle of the eighth row
Copyright © 2019 by Mary Soon Lee. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.