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An American chemist in Barcelona

by Craig Bettenhausen
June 25, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 20


The circulatory system of a brain encased in lucite.
Credit: Craig Bettenhausen/C&EN
Thinkpiece: The vascular system of a human brain, extracted and plastinated for all to see at CosmoCaixa.

Catalan chemistry

Near the northeastern corner of Spain, Barcelona sits on the coast facing the Mediterranean Sea. The capital of Catalonia is famous for its seafood and architecture, but a long history as a center of trade and travel has also helped the city develop a robust scientific community. In addition to a selection of universities befitting an urban center with 4.6 million people, the area hosts a disproportionate share of the cosmetic and personal care industry in southern Europe and all the chemical production, distribution, and formulation that entails.

There is a laboratory behind a glass display at CosmoCaixa.
Credit: Craig Bettenhausen/C&EN
Well loved: For 25 years, when researchers at Spain’s Antarctic scientific mission brought a sample from the field to the lab, it was this lab, now on display at CosmoCaixa.

The two major science museums earn a natural place on the itinerary of any Barcelona tourist with a chemistry bent. The Museum of Natural Sciences of Barcelona traces a path from the origins of the universe through the first blips of life all the way to modern plants and animals. A massive display of preserved fungi forms the most impressive part of the collection and includes a pragmatic portion on edibility—the curators rated both shiitake mushrooms and corn smut as “edible, excellent.” The permanent collection skews toward micro- and macrobiology but ends with a generous and gorgeous display of gems, crystals, and minerals.

On the other side of town, CosmoCaxia is as much a scientific playground as it is a museum. A wealth of interactive demonstrations on chemistry and physics fills a stadium-sized space that bustles with children and adults manipulating ferrofluid, exploring electromagnetic spectra, and adjusting a particle-in-a-box simulation the size of a tour bus, among a hundred other activities and displays.

An exibit showing a standing wave demonstration.
Credit: Craig Bettenhausen/C&EN
Potato: Physicists might call this a standing wave demonstration, but chemists know it’s a giant-particle-in-a-box simulation.

In an atrium near the entrance is the laboratory that chemist Antoni Ballester built in 1987 and 1988 as part of Spain’s scientific mission to Antarctica. At roughly 2 m tall and wide by 4 m long, the facility is compact but well appointed, with chromatographic and spectroscopic instruments and an analytical wet lab. Spanish researchers used Ballester’s setup until 2013, when it was replaced with newer equipment. Josefina Castellví, a marine microbiologist and former director of the mission, arranged to have the old lab shipped to Barcelona and donated to the museum.


Moving mercury

Credit: Craig Bettenhausen/C&EN
Flow: Alexander Calder chose a straightforward title for this sculpture—Mercury Fountain.
A display of several seashells that are hung on wire inside of a glass display case.
Credit: Craig Bettenhausen/C&EN
Shellfish: The exhibit designers at the Museum of Natural Sciences of Barcelona have a flair for dramatic displays.

Barcelona’s Joan Miró Foundation is worth a visit for fans of the titular artist’s sparse, playful paintings and lush, chaotic fabric art. But the art museum is of special interest for chemists because it also holds Alexander Calder’s Mercury Fountain. At first approach, it’s not obvious that the liquid is quicksilver. But getting closer and letting one’s mind wrap around the piece, the metallic character of the liquid’s reflections reveal it to be flowing mercury. The fountain head shakes with the effort of the submerged pump to lift the dense metal more than a meter into the air.

The work honors the Spanish town of Almadén, which once supplied more than 60% of the world’s mercury from its mines. Fascist military forces led by Francisco Franco attacked the town in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. In protest, the government commissioned Calder to create the fountain for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, where it was displayed next to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Both pieces denounce the brutality and destruction of the war, which Franco won in 1939.

Calder later gave the work to Joan Miró, a longtime friend. The artists’ original design allowed visitors to inspect the fountain up close, but safety concerns spurred the museum to put it behind glass. Probably for the best, as mercuric overspray can be seen throughout the enclosure, decorating the pink granite that surrounds the sculpture with silvery specks.

A display showing archaeological ruins.
Credit: Craig Bettenhausen/C&EN
Subterranean: Pick the right basements in Barcelona and you’ll find Roman ruins. In this case, a moist industrial district now underneath the Plaça del Rei, had ancient factories for fermenting wine and fish a few doors down from laundromats and dyeworks.

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