The limerick is a short verse made up of 5 lines where the first second and fifth line usually share one rhyme while the third and fourth have a different rhyme. This form of verse arose in the 18th century and was popularized by the English artist Edward Lear. The limerick has become very popular in English speaking countries, and millions of them have been written. Although quite a few limericks are naughty or dirty, many limericks are used in several areas of human endeavors to convey, in a short and witty manner, important or humorous messages, or to highlight or celebrate occurrences of renown. In science, limericks have been used for many purposes and they range from those that are readily accessible to the layperson, to those that are highly technical.
Today we will take a look at some science limericks.
The limerick has been used by teachers as a teaching tool to help students remember their facts. An example is the following limerick by engineering Profesor Annraoi de Paor:
“Of electrical worth it’s the stamp
To distinguish the volt from the amp:
Should your class nod, ‘That’s true –
Volts across and amps through,’
It’s sure that you’re in the right camp.
This limerick is employed to tell the difference between the AMP, a unit of electrical current (through), and the VOLT, a unit of potential difference or abundance of electric charges from one point to another (across).
Limericks have also been used to highlight or celebrate great discoveries. For example, this limerick is about the discovery by Paul Ehrlich of the drug Salvarsan which was controversially used to treat the venereal disease syphilis (the limerick ends with the chemical name of the drug).
A chemist named Ehrlich, unclean
Engaged in researches obscene
He injected the poxy
The next limerick celebrates the discovery of X-Rays by Wilhelm Röntgen.
The integument used so to hide
The organs and bones deep inside
‘Till Röntgen discovered
Rays that uncovered
Whatever was wounded, save pride.
The many accomplishments of Albert Einstein, especially his theory of relativity, produced several limericks including the following one:
There was a young lady named Bright,
Who travelled much faster than light;
She set out one day,
In a relative way,
And came back the previous night.
Although it is impossible and nonsensical, the point of the limerick is that if someone could travel at speeds faster than light, they might theoretically experience time running backwards.
Some discoveries celebrated in limericks did not turn out so good, such as the limerick below by D. D. Perrin.
A mosquito was heard to complain
That a chemist had poisoned his brain.
The cause of his sorrow
Paradichloro-Diphenyltrichloroethane is the chemical name of the insecticide known as DDT. It was effective at controlling the mosquito populations and reduced the incidence of malaria, but was found to be harmful for the environment, and its use was banned.
There are some discoveries or ideas that just fire up the imagination. The following limerick is about Werner Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty principle, which states that the speed or the position of a particle can be known, but not both:
A quantum mechanic's vacation
Had his colleagues in dire consternation.
For while studies had shown
That his speed was well known,
His position was pure speculation.
A favorite topic for limericks is the perplexing cat in Edwin’s Schrodinger’s famous thought experiment. For example this limerick by Karen Reid:
The cat in the box still has growth
Or it's dead, and infested with sloth
One should not get unnerved
Till the cat is observed
It's a superposition of both.
There is also the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick featured in limericks such as the one below by Paul Chernoff.
Two bright boffins named Watson and Crick
Puzzled out what makes DNA tick.
It's just like spiral stairs
With the bases in pairs:
How on earth did God think of that trick?
And limericks inspired by Darwin’s discovery of evolution.
Said an ape as he swung by his tail,
To his offspring both female and male,
Your descendants, my dears,
In a few million years,
May evolve to professors at Yale.
Some illustrious scientists are known to have had a favorite limerick. The favorite limerick of the Nobel Prize winning biochemist Hans Krebs dealt with the phenomenon of fermentation.
There was a young woman from Hyde,
Who ate some green apples and died;
The apples fermented
Inside the lamented,
And made cider inside her insides.
The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins who coined the term “Selfish Gene” authored this limerick meant to highlight the controversial interpretation that ephemeral living things such as human beings are nothing but vessels that their immortal genes use to multiply.
An itinerant selfish gene
Said "bodies a-plenty I've seen
You think you're so clever
But I'll live for ever
You're just a survival machine".
The great science fiction writer and science popularizer Isaac Asimov wrote several books of what he called “Lecherous Limericks”, but he did manage to compose a few with some science like this one.
Said an ovum one night to a sperm,
"You're a very attractive young germ.
Come join me, my sweet,
Let our nuclei meet
And in nine months we'll both come to term.
Despite all the fun and games, limericks have also been used to criticize and humiliate people. The biochemist Stanley Prusiner proposed in 1982 a new theory to explain the cause of some diseases that were believed at the time to be produced by “slow viruses”. Prusiner claimed these diseases arose due to a pathogenic agent that, unlike viruses, contained no DNA or RNA (only protein) which he christened “Prion”. He was the object of much criticism and derision, and an anonymous limerick was circulated among several labs in the field and published in the press.
There was a young turk named Stan
Who embarked on a devious plan.
"If I simply rename it,
I'm sure I can claim it,"
Said Stan as he pondered his scam.
"Eureka!" Cried Stan, "I have found it.
Well...maybe not actually found it.
But I talked to the press
Of the slow virus mess,
And invented a name to confound it!"
However, Dr. Prusiner had the last laugh when he won the Nobel Prize in 1997!
And finally, a naughty limerick regarding Edmond Halley the astronomer who discovered what is now known as Halley’s Comet.
From the public, his discovery brought cheers.
From his wife, it drew nothing but tears.
"For you see," said Ms. Halley,
"He used to come daily,
Now he comes once every 70 years!"
I will let you figure this one out.
The image of the math limerick by Leigh Mercer, is by Dwight Sipler, and is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.