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Artful chemistry

by Laura Howes
April 23, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 14


Musical molecules

A quick glance through past instances of this column will tell the reader that Newscripts can often take a musical turn. But at the University of Michigan, Timothy Cernak has added a new riff by incorporating effects such as pedals and synths to his lab kit. Instruments they certainly are, but chemical instrumentation? Maybe, if you want to use melody to design molecules, Cernak says.

The structure of a molecule encoded by the children's song.
Melodic molecule: Otherwise known as "Twinkle twinkle little star" in the key of D-flat

Cernak is an expert in designing drugs using artificial intelligence. That requires computational ways to describe compounds, such as string notations or matrices of molecular data. He says computers can read these descriptors, but they’re less immediately recognizable to human chemists. Wondering if these representations could be constraining how he and other chemists think about molecules, Cernak started thinking about the problem of how to encode all the structural information. If the medium chemists use to describe a molecule influences how they perceive it,why not mix up the medium?

Last year, 18 months into the pandemic and looking for a lighter project for the lab, Cernak decided to explore musical interactions with molecules. The result: take molecular information in a computationally readable form called Self-referencing Embedded Strings (also known as SELFIES), and encode it into a phrase of music. Change the molecule; change the melody. The idea works in reverse too: play a tune to the algorithm, and you can see what compound results.

“We went in as chemists,” Cernak tells Newscripts, “but it’s also exciting as art.” Chemists can use musical similarities to recognize harmonies between compounds or combine different motifs into new chemical compositions. Musicians might be able to use chemical riffs to inspire new tunes, he says.

Cernak and his lab have published a description of the project so far as a preprint (ChemRxiv 2022, DOI: 10.26434/chemrxiv-2022-g7xkl). The manuscript is currently undergoing peer review, but curious chemists can already listen to the tunes produced by their favorite molecules. Meanwhile, the lab keeps acquiring more musical instruments. This Newscriptster wonders if one day we’ll have concerts alongside scientific meetings.



A page from the book showing strands of a mask coloured in different colors.
Credit: Laura Howes/C&EN
Artful science: Newscripts got to work coloring in this magnified image of a mask.

When Wageningen University chemist Vittorio Saggiomo started learning scanning electron microscopy (SEM) last year, he was quickly struck by the beauty of the images the method produced. So much so that he started digitally coloring them in. After users on the social network Twitter liked his images, Saggiomo wondered if they could be printed and shared in the form of a coloring book. The last few years have seen an explosion in coloring books for adults to help people relax and unwind. These days you can find coloring books on almost any theme, even science, and Saggiomo has some himself. But most coloring books share a common characteristic—they use black lines to outline the shapes on white paper. SEM images, meanwhile, come out gray scale. Would that work with coloring pencils?

Saggiomo drafted nephews, nieces, and even his mother to test the idea. Reassured by their success, Saggiomo returned from the December holiday break with a mission: find 10 items that could go under the microscope and be turned into images for coloring in. The Electron Microscopy Coloring Book is filled with magnified images of objects at different resolutions. Inside the pages, you can color in the details of materials like chalk, seashells, yeast, and the now-familiar respirator masks. The images all “show something you know, but in a way you’ve never seen them,” Saggiomo says.

So is this book a one-off foray into a different sort of scientific publication? Perhaps not, Saggiomo admits to Newscripts. He’s already thinking about how other microscopy images might translate to the format of a coloring book.

But for now, pass the pencils!

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