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Finger Painting, Celebrity DNA, Fun With Toilet Paper

by Linda Wang
February 6, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 6


Credit: David Cordes
Mikhail Tsvet: The inventor of chromatography immortalized in oil paint.
Painting of Mikhail Tsvet by organic chemist David Cordes
Credit: David Cordes
Mikhail Tsvet: The inventor of chromatography immortalized in oil paint.

For David B. Cordes, nitrile gloves are indispensable. By day, they protect his hands from chemicals in the lab. And by night, they are a tool for artistic expression.

That’s when Cordes, an assistant professor of organic chemistry at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., uses the gloves to help create chemistry-themed paintings. He recently produced a series of vibrant pieces depicting some of the colorful personalities in the evolution of organic chemistry, including Emil Fischer, Linus C. Pauling, Louis Pasteur, and Robert B. Woodward. The series was on display this past January during an alumni and faculty art show at Pacific.

Rather than using a paintbrush, Cordes spreads oil paints onto canvases with his fingertips. “I use nitrile gloves, a trick I picked up in the lab, to keep my hands clean,” he says. Occasionally, he’ll use pipettes to achieve a splatter effect. He uses a paintbrush only to add text and chemical structures, he says.

Cordes, who has a B.S. in history and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, says he hopes the paintings will stimulate conversations about the role that organic chemists played in the history of science. Many people have asked about the chemical structures he’s incorporated into each painting, he says. “It’s good to see interest in this kind of stuff because organic chemistry does sometimes turn some people off,” he says. “It has a very bad rap, and I think that’s unfair. It’s an amazing science with an amazing history.”

Cordes began painting two years ago after feeling frustrated that he didn’t have more time during his undergraduate chemistry lectures to talk about the history of chemistry. “The idea just built that this might be kind of a cool way to provide an access point for students, and the public, to get a view of the personalities behind the science,” he says. For a slideshow of Cordes’ artwork, visit

Credit: DNA Imprints
DNA: Essential to life … and art.
DNA art: DNA Imprints, a firm in San Diego takes people’s DNA, runs it through gel electrophoresis and converts the pattern into wall art.
Credit: DNA Imprints
DNA: Essential to life … and art.

Art also met science in an unusual place recently: at the Golden Globe Awards ceremony, held on Jan. 15 in Los Angeles. Celebrities attending the event received a DNA collection kit in their swag bags. San Diego-based quasi-art, quasi-science company DNA Imprints provided the kits to the stars, who will be able to swab their cheeks and mail the DNA-laden specimens to the firm. DNA Imprints will then convert gel electrophoresis patterns obtained from the samples into genetically coded masterpieces to hang on the wall. “It’s the best of both worlds as science meets art … and Geek meets [Lady] Gaga,” the company said in a press release.

Give some math students a few rolls of toilet paper, and they might not make art with it, but don’t be surprised if they try to break a world record instead.

High school students from St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Mass., have broken a paper-folding record by folding toilet tissue back on itself 13 times, according to a Jan. 13 article in the online newspaper the Huffington Post.

Because no single roll of toilet paper is long enough to fold 13 times without becoming too thick to bend, the students used a mathematical formula to determine how many rolls of toilet paper they would need to tape together to reach 1.2 km—the length required for 13 folds. The Newscripts gang thinks that’s impressive but wonders what they did with all that toilet paper afterward.


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