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Franklin's Extraordinary Science, Periodic Poetry

by Stephen K. Ritter
February 5, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 6

Franklin's extraordinary science

"Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time; for that's the stuff life is made of." BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, who wrote those words, lived up to his own sage advice by spending his time wisely as a printer, publisher, writer, businessman, politician, statesman, pundit, humorist, philosopher, inventor, weatherman, and scientist. As it turns out, Franklin's scientific contributions have had a much broader impact on science than most people are aware of.

Science historian Joyce E. Chaplin of Harvard University spoke about Franklin's dual life as a founding father of the U.S. and a founding father of science during the annual American Vacuum Society International Symposium in San Francisco back in mid-November. She was one of several speakers at a special session to celebrate Franklin's 300th birthday.

Chaplin said most people think of Franklin's foray into science as "an odd, private hobby." On the contrary, Chaplin and other historians agree that Franklin's wide-ranging experiments and help organizing scientific lectures and demonstrations brought science into the general public's "lives and consciousness."

Several presenters at the Franklinfest naturally discussed his high-flying research that established lightning is electrical in nature. Lawrence B. Schein, a consultant who formerly worked at Xerox and IBM, also talked about Franklin's descriptions of static electricity that eventually led to the development of electrophotography, the technology now used in digital laser printing.

Chemistry professor Geraldine L. Richmond of the University of Oregon discussed Franklin's little-known work regarding oil-on-water films that could qualify him as being the world's first surface scientist. She noted how Franklin often walked around with a small bottle of oil in his pocket and would pour a few drops on various bodies of water. He then observed the rapid formation of a film on the surface and how the film would spread and have a calming effect on the water, she explained.

Richmond further discussed how repetition by John W. Strutt (Lord Rayleigh) in 1890 of Franklin's experiments led to the first experimental measurement of the size of a molecule. Later on, in the early 1900s, Irving Langmuir built upon the work to reveal that cell membranes consist of lipid bilayers. And today, scientists have advanced the oil-on-water concept to understand self-assembled monolayer structures. Way to go, Ben.

Periodic Poetry

Using ELEMENT SYMBOLS to spell out words reached new heights this past year when two major companies rolled out ad campaigns. Carmaker Acura produced an ad, previously mentioned in this column, in which the name of the car is spelled with the symbols for actinium, uranium, and radium (AcURa). Those elements are all radioactive, by the way. And Dow Chemical produced ads using the new elemental symbol Hu, for humanium. The Dow ads are a bid to show how the "human element" is missing from the periodic table and chemistry. Missing from the abstruse ads are any chemical plants or products, however.

Dow's emotional pitch inspired retired Dow environmental scientist Stacy L. Daniels of Midland, Mich., to compose a poem that consists of the symbols for all 111 named elements and humanium. Titled "HuMn FAcEs IN Th PErIODyK TbLaS," the poem requires "considerable poetic and chemical license," Daniels says. It extols Dow's corporate history and its vision in bringing the human element into chemistry. <!--The poem can be read on C&EN Online.-->

There are many poems about elements, Daniels notes, including quite a few posted on a periodic table of poetry website. She also points out the famous song written by Tom Lehrer in the mid-1950s that consists solely of the names of all the elements. An animated rendition of Lehrer's "The Elements" is a current cyberspace hit. But Daniels isn't aware of any other poem incorporating the symbolic nomenclature of chemistry.

This week's column was written by Steve Ritter. Please send comments and suggestions to


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