The Lesser Mortal, Geoff Lander
HappenStance, 2018 £5.00
Serious light verse
When verse is lightly rhyming, you tend to think it’s frothy. Just a bit of fun.
These, however, are poems about scientists, whose greatness comes across as well deserved. ‘James Clerk Maxwell & a Serious Bout of Scientific Name-Dropping’ bounces along, but as it does so, we are left in no uncertain terms about the genius who is its subject:
Wonder was his watchword. He must know the ‘do’ of things,
and ‘wonder’ won the Adam’s prize for sorting Saturn’s rings
with such exacting arguments that even Biddell Airy
(the eminent astronomer) described their scope as scary.
The footnotes are educational for non-scientists, and even here in the small print, the tone of respect cannot be missed. The final footnote on Maxwell reads:
Light is an electromagnetic phenomenon. Maxwell will have known the speed of light from astronomy.
Was his the greatest scientific achievement of the century? In physics—yes.
The poet also fights a number of corners on behalf of the underrated. ‘On the shoulders of others’, makes the point that Einstein was not the only person to come up with the world famous E + mc2 formula:
Time will have the final say,
Monsieur Henri Poincaré.
Again, a footnote drives this point home:
No-one doubts Einstein’s contribution to science: quanta, atoms ... but science is a collective effort.
Poincaré had all the elements of relativity, not just the famous formula.
Each of the poems sets off with a different metrical pattern. It is best to read them aloud (or sing them) to get the full effect. Once you do this, the songs of praise ring out loud and strong. This reader was even tempted to join in:
There can’t be many cases of
a female of the species
who’s won two Nobel prizes
without a doctoral thesis.
By now you may have guessed the name
which thrilled the Swedish jury:
a polymath, before her time—
the Polish Marie Curie.
The joy of rhyming
Pray readers dutifully prime
Geoff Lander’s chimes on science
And hear him beautifully rhyme
Dissecting the subject’s giants.
Relearning how to use his hand
In metrical composition,
G. Lander came to understand
His talent’s disposition.
Volumetrically he frames
(With wit and rhyme and précis)
History’s most engaging names
Like Maxwell, Strutt and Davy.
Reading Lander is to grasp
The likes of Mendeleyev,
Learning science as you laugh.
We joyously quote at length:
Spare a thought for argon gas,
feeling so neglected.
It had to wait for ages
before balances detected
a different weight for nitrogen
(obtained from a reaction)
than that from air around us.
So ― using liquefaction ―
Ramsay chased the ancient lead
and recent tip from Strutt
and found the gas (though hunkered down
on charcoaled coconut).
Is always quite demanding
And here: ‘risky photography’
Had this audience upstanding.