Courtesy of Arthur Olson

Arthur Olson is shaking up the molecular world. A structural biologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., Olson has been making models of proteins, DNA strands, and other biological objects for more than 25 years – first by hand, then with computers. These days, he uses rapid prototyping systems borrowed from industry, along with a small jar and a few magnets, to shake together biological models the way a bartender shakes together a good martini.

"If I'm talking with a colleague about a structure and I can hold it in my hand, that's a natural perceptual experience," more intuitive than using a mouse to rotate an image on a screen, he says. Using a modeling device that extrudes plastic parts, Olson crafted 12 identical pieces that went together in the spherical form of a viral capsid. "But the parts...

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