Periodic Table in NY Times

The level of chemical literacy in the New York Times is definitely “on the rise.”  (He, he, he.)  (Pun intended. )  See the graphic accompanying this article.

In addition to looking at the graphic, you might want to read the article…. But don’t believe a word that is written.

I take strong exception to the author’s belief that a pun is a tawdry form of humor.  He’s obviously never spent quality time with a bunch of scientists in a bar.  (Oh, look at the author’s bio…. He’s a law student.  He probably doesn’t even like jokes about bar exams.)

I and a number of my scientist colleagues are inveterate punsters.  We have no shame.  No pun is too low.  And if it elicits a groan from the audience, that’s even better.  (Here’s a link to some really bad chemistry puns. And here’s another link to more bad chemistry puns.)

Why am I writing about puns in a blog supposedly devoted to science and/or parenting?  Is there a link between science and puns?

Perhaps.  The kind of thinking required for both activities involves looking at an object or a word from several perspectives at the same time.   The mental agility required to play with words (while punning) is not that different from the mental agility required to play with molecular structures (while visualizing chemistry in your head).

One of my favorite parts of organic chemistry was learning about the concept of chirality and stereochemistry.  Two molecules with the same formula and the same configuration of bonds can actually be quite different, because they can be “mirror images” of each other. In my memory, I can still see my St. Olaf College chemistry professor, the legendary and iconic Wes Pearson, holding up his left hand and right hand to introduce the concept of “handedness” as it applies to many organic molecules.

One of the most dramatic examples I recall from that college class is the anti-nausea drug, thalidomide.  Wes Pearson showed us that there can be two stereoisomers (also called “enantiomers”) of this chemical compound.  One version of this molecule is effective in treating morning sickness.  The other version, however, is teratogenic, which means it can cause birth defects.  The tragic story of thalidomide (used in more than 40 countries in the late 1950’s) certainly got our attention during that lecture, and I’ve been fascinated by the concept of stereochemistry ever since.

So, the moral of this blog post is that puns are linguistic enantiomers.  (No pun intended.)

(Part 2 of this article will consider the relationship between puns and parenting.)

Published in: on March 28, 2009 at 9:05 am  Leave a Comment  
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