The Elements – Tom Lehrer

The Elements

There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium,
And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium,
And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium,
And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium,
Europium, zirconium, lutetium, vanadium,
And lanthanum and osmium and astatine and radium,
And gold, protactinium and indium and gallium,
And iodine and thorium and thulium and thallium.

There’s yttrium, ytterbium, actinium, rubidium,
And boron, gadolinium, niobium, iridium,
And strontium and silicon and silver and samarium,
And bismuth, bromine, lithium, beryllium, and barium.

There’s holmium and helium and hafnium and erbium,
And phosphorus and francium and fluorine and terbium,
And manganese and mercury, molybdenum, magnesium,
Dysprosium and scandium and cerium and cesium.
And lead, praseodymium, and platinum, plutonium,
Palladium, promethium, potassium, polonium,
And tantalum, technetium, titanium, tellurium,
And cadmium and calcium and chromium and curium.

There’s sulfur, californium, and fermium, berkelium,
And also mendelevium, einsteinium, nobelium,
And argon, krypton, neon, radon, xenon, zinc, and rhodium,
And chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper, tungsten, tin, and sodium.

These are the only ones of which the news has come to Ha’vard,
And there may be many others, but they haven’t been discavard.

– Tom Lehrer

“The Elements” has become an important item of modern science geek culture, as shown by the character of Sheldon singing it in The Big-Bang Theory and by Daniel Radcliffe singing it on The Graham Norton Show. It is a song, not a poem, and songs usually work better in performance, so let’s go straight to YouTube:

Tom Lehrer was a mathematician and musician who studied and worked at Harvard as well as at other institutions. His musical comedy covered many forms of humour including satire (“Wernher von Braun”, “The Vatican Rag”), black comedy (“Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”) and absurdity (“The Elements”). He often drew on intellectual or technical subject matter, including mathematics and the sciences.

“The Elements” is set to the tune of the “Major-General’s Song” from the Gilbert & Sullivan opera The Pirates of Penzance. Gilbert’s triple rhymes in the “Major-General’s Song” are extremely clever and one of the best technical features of the piece; Lehrer had it a lot easier in his pastiche, since almost every metallic element discovered in modern times has a name ending in -ium, but he did still have to find the third syllables for each rhyme, and he also makes up for it with extensive alliteration running through almost every line. The metre requires the non-standard American spelling and pronunciation of ‘aluminum‘ (and ‘cesium’, which doesn’t affect the metre), but I think that’s forgivable.

The song lists all 102 elements known when it was written in 1959. As Lehrer comments in the live recording linked above, lawrencium was synthesised soon afterwards and many others have since been discovered, up to 116 (livermorium) but with gaps still existing at 113 and 115, for which claims are currently being considered. I think this news has probably even reached Harvard by now!

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