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Art & Artifacts


Spotting molecules in the wild

by Bethany Halford
September 29, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 32


A building decorated with unconventional chemical structures that have oddly long bonds and connections that don't make sense.
Credit: Anouk Lubbe/Twitter
Strange chemistry: Can you spot all the errors in the structures on this building at Campus Groningen?

What’s wrong with this picture?

The Newscripts gang gets a thrill whenever we witness chemistry in the wild. Molecules decorating buildings and public spaces may seem mysterious to nonchemists, but for those of us in the know, they can impart a degree of delight or, in some cases, a bit of a headache.

C&EN’s work assembling this issue on laboratory spaces reminded us of a 2021 post on Twitter (now known as X) of a decoration outside a laboratory. The Twitter account @FeringaLab, from the laboratory of chemistry Nobel laureate and University of Groningen professor Ben Feringa, shared a photo of the exterior of a building at Campus Groningen, a nonprofit research and innovation center in the Netherlands.

The building is emblazoned with chemical structures, but many don’t make sense. Anouk Lubbe, a research manager in the Feringa lab who posted the photo, tells Newscripts that she occasionally passes the building and finds the structures annoying. Some bonds are unusually long or don’t quite link up to the vertices of the aromatic rings to which they’re supposed to be attached. Random elements are scattered throughout. The post declares, “Anyone leaving dirty glassware in the sink will from now on be forced to walk past this building.”

Newscripts reached out to a Campus Groningen representative, who says there haven’t been any complaints about the decoration from the people who work there.


Captivating caffeine

A light fixture made in the shape of caffeine with frosted and clear glass spheres attached by metal poles is hanging from the ceiling.
Credit: University of Chemistry and Technology, Prague
Molecule alight: This caffeine light fixture illuminates a building at the University of Chemistry and Technology, Prague.

If artists had molecular muses, caffeine would be their Calliope. Wall art featuring caffeine’s structure is popular—or so suggest search results from Etsy, an online marketplace for creative goods. But the design firm Preciosa Lighting had an even brighter idea for its take on the molecule.

A metal bike rack shaped like a caffeine molecule.
Credit: Colin Garvie
Lock it up: This caffeine bike rack was designed to give scientist commuters a smile.

In 2019, the company made a light fixture in the shape of caffeine for the University of Chemistry and Technology, Prague, with the idea that it would “keep students awake during lectures,” according to Preciosa’s website. The whimsical fixture illuminates a renovated coal storage building. It measures 3 m long, features clear and frosted glass spheres connected by steel tubes, and hangs on thin metal wires from the ceiling to give the impression that it’s floating in space.

For a more grounded rendering of caffeine, chemists in the Kendall Square neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts, have been admiring a sculpture of the molecule since 2012. Case Randall’s aptly named Caffeine Molecule also serves as a bike rack in an area where cycling is the transportation mode of choice.

“I thought it would be a fun inside joke for the scientists who would recognize the molecular structure on their morning commute,” Randall wrote in an artist’s statement about the work when it premiered. The bike rack design was one of five chosen that year as part of a competition from Cambridge Arts meant to encourage bicycling as a healthy and sustainable form of transportation.

At first glance, this Newscriptster mistook the structure for adenine. To be fair, it does look like a nucleobase and was placed across from the entrance to the underground public transportation network, known locally as the T.

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