linkurl:"Molecules That Matter,";http://tang.skidmore.edu/pac/mtm/ a traveling exhibit that opened to the public at the newly renovated linkurl:Chemical Heritage Foundation;http://www.chemheritage.org/ in Philadelphia earlier this month, ties the history of the 20th century to a handful of the most influential molecules of the period.
The goal of the exhibit is simple: to help the public, who typically cringes at memories from high school chemistry classes, to connect chemical discoveries to the products they use everyday.
And connect it does. Brightly colored models of penicillin G, DDT, and Prozac molecules -- each spanning more than seven feet wide and weighing more than 75 pounds -- hover above visitors from the exhibit ceiling. Contemporary art and artifacts -- including marble sculptures of genetically-modified rats and a 1960 magazine cover addressing the controversy surrounding "the pill" -- mingle in the museum. A display case of consumer products born out of the 20th century chemical discoveries, like Tupperware and pantyhose, allows visitors to follow a timeline of chemistry's rise to popular prominence.
Slideshow: Chemical Heritage Foundation
Slideshow: Chemical Heritage Foundation
The exhibit allows visitors to connect with chemistry through "science, material culture, and through the reflections of artists," said Marjorie Gapp, a curator at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, who was responsible for selecting the artifacts and artwork to be included in the foundation's exhibit.
"The message of the show is for people to see that their plastics, drugs, synthetic dyes, things in the car -- they are all connected to chemistry," said linkurl:Ray Giguere,;http://cms.skidmore.edu/news/qa.cfm?passID=411 a chemistry professor at Skidmore College in New York and the creator of the exhibit. Giguere was inspired by years of teaching a chemistry course that prompted both science and non-science majors "to connect the dots" between 20th century history and the contributions of chemistry.
While teaching, Giguere said he began to envision how pieces of his chemistry class could be translated into a linkurl:museum;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/14546/ exhibit, based around 10 organic molecules for each decade of the century. His idea intrigued the curator at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore and "Molecules That Matter" opened there in August 2007.
To settle on the 10 molecules that would make up the exhibit, Giguere formed a board of 10 scientists coming from academia and industry, including members of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Beginning with more than 100 molecules, they whittled the list down to about ten before turning to chemistry Nobel laureates, linkurl:Roald Hoffman;http://www.roaldhoffmann.com/pn/ and linkurl:Dudley Herschbach,;http://www.chem.harvard.edu/herschbach/dudley.php for a final nod of approval.
"When we started seriously [planning] the exhibit, I realized the responsibility for choosing these [ten molecules] would be huge," Giguere said. The only qualifiers were that the molecules had to be organic and reflect the diversity of the 20th century chemical discoveries or products.
The molecules they chose (listed in order of decade, beginning with 1900) were: aspirin, isooctane, penicillin, polyethylene, nylon, DNA, progestin, DDT, Prozac, and buckminsterfullerene (also known as buckyball). Giguere was quick to admit these ten molecules were not the century's only important substances, but he said there is no denying their influence on society.
"One can analyze and criticize our decision to highlight these molecules all [one] wants," Giguere said. "What you can't deny, you can't come to us and say these molecules are not titans. They are all titans ... that was the criteria."
While the blending of "hard science with hard art" had the potential to be what Giguere termed "a real train wreck" in the eyes of both artists and scientists, he said the exhibit pulls it off. "The linkurl:art;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/54730/ may ask the deeper questions about science, yet the science is there, unapologetic."
The "Molecules That Matter" exhibit will be at Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia through the end of 2008.