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Analytical Chemistry

'Molecules That Matter' Explores The History And Societal Impact Of 10 Compounds

by Celia Henry Arnaud
October 27, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 43

Aerial view
Credit: Rich Dunoff
"Molecules that Matter" incorporates molecular models and art to tell the stories of 10 molecules and their societal impact.
Credit: Rich Dunoff
"Molecules that Matter" incorporates molecular models and art to tell the stories of 10 molecules and their societal impact.

"Molecules That Matter," the first exhibit in the changing gallery at the Chemical Heritage Foundation's (CHF's) new museum, looks at 10 organic compounds and consequences they have had on society throughout the 20th century. The exhibit associates each molecule with a particular decade, starting with aspirin (1900s) and ending with buckyballs and carbon nanotubes (1990s). The curators have combined large molecular models, archival materials, consumer products, and artwork to tell the stories of these molecules.

Raymond Giguere, a chemistry professor at Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., conceived the show and developed it in collaboration with John Weber, director of Skidmore's Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum & Art Gallery, along with staff at CHF. The exhibit was open at the Tang Museum from September 2007 to April 2008.

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'Molecules That Matter' Explores The History And Societal Impact Of 10 Compounds

Choosing the molecules was an 18-month process. "How do you select from the hundred or several hundred possible excellent candidates 10 that are going to be representative?" Giguere asks. To meet that challenge, he assembled a scientific advisory board of former students and colleagues from around the country. "We asked people to send a list of molecules they liked and the decades they intersect with," Giguere says. "There were molecules everybody could agree on. Everybody knew we had to include DNA."

The first set of nominations netted more than 100 compounds, Giguere says. The committee whittled the list to about 20, and then things got tough. The most intense debates focused on productive periods in chemistry history, such as the 1930s, when many important compounds were discovered or invented.

"It becomes a sort of puzzle. How do you put this together in a way that respects the diversity of the molecules and the categories?" Giguere asks. "I didn't want a show that was all about medicinals, all about polymers, all about unusual molecules. As we put this together, we tried to have a broad range of materials covered so we could intersect with major aspects of modern life."

To hit all the societal aspects they wanted to cover, they played a little fast and loose with the decade assignments. Some molecules, such as penicillin, ended up in the decade they were discovered. Others—such as DDT, which was originally synthesized in the 1870s—were assigned decades in which they had great impact. Isooctane, which was slotted into the 1910s, doesn't fit either category. Instead, its date was chosen because of the problems with engine knocking in early automobiles. The complete list of molecules in order by decade is aspirin, isooctane, penicillin, nylon, polyethylene, DNA, progestin, DDT, Prozac (fluoxetine), and buckminsterfullerene.

Each molecule is illustrated by artwork representing different artists' responses to that molecule. For example, the progestin portion of the exhibit includes so-called Chrissy Caviar, eggs harvested from the ovaries of New York City artist Chrissy Conant. Art about DNA includes cultured marble sculptures by Bryan Crockett of genetically modified mice representing the seven deadly sins. The artist made the pink semisynthetic marble by pulverizing natural marble and mixing the powder with a binding agent.

CHF's changing gallery is small enough that it can accommodate only a fraction of the full exhibit that visitors to the Tang enjoyed. Only three of the chemical models hang from the ceiling. Even though the full exhibit includes multiple artworks for each molecule, the pared-down version includes at least one piece of art for each molecule.

After it leaves CHF in January, the entire exhibit can be seen at the College of Wooster, in Ohio, and Grinnell College, in Iowa.


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