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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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February 18, 2013

What Would Go Into the Chemistry Museum Displays, Anyway?

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Posted by Derek

Well, Cambridge is quiet today, as are many workplaces across the US. My plan is to go out for some good Chinese food and then spend the afternoon in here with my family; my kids haven't been there for at least a couple of years now.

And that brings up a thought that I know many chemists have had: how ill-served chemistry is by museums, science centers, and so on. Physics has a better time of it, or at least some parts of it. You can demo Newtonian mechanics with a lot of hands-on stuff, and there's plenty to do with light, electricity and magnetism and so on. (Quantum mechanics and particle physics, well, not so much). Biology at least can have some live creatures (large and small), and natural-history type exhibits, but its problems for public display really kick in when it shades over to biochemistry.

Chemistry, though, is a tough sell. Displays of the elements aren't bad, but many of them are silvery metals that can't be told apart by the naked eye. Crystals are always good, so perhaps we can claim some of the mineral displays for our own. But physical chemistry, organic chemistry, and analytical chemistry are difficult to show off. The time scales tend to be either too fast or too slow for human perception, or the changes aren't noticeable except with the help of instrumentation. There are still some good demonstrations, but many of these have to be run with freshly prepared materials, and by a single trained person. You can't just turn everyone loose with the stuff, and it's hard to come up with an automated, foolproof display that can run behind glass (and still attract anyone's interest). An interactive "add potassium to water to see what happens" display would be very popular, but rather hard to stage, both practically and from an insurance standpoint. You'd also run through a lot of potassium, come to think of it.

Another problem is that chemistry tends to deal with topics that people either don't see, or don't notice. Cooking food, for example, is sheer chemistry, but no one thinks of it like that - well, except Harold McGee and now the molecular gastronomy people. (Speaking of which, if any of you are crazy enough to order this from Amazon, I'll be very impressed indeed). Washing with soap or detergent, starting a fire, using paint or dye - there are plenty of everyday processes that illustrate chemistry, but they're so familiar that it's hard to use them as demonstrations. Products as various as distilled liquor, plastic containers, gasoline, and (of course) drugs of all sorts are pure examples of all sorts of chemical ideas, but again, it's hard to show them as such. They're either too well-known (think of Dustin Hoffman being advised to go into plastics), or too esoteric (medicinal chemistry, for most people).

So I started asking myself, what would I do if I had to put up some chemistry exhibits in a museum? How would I make them interesting? For med-chem, I'm imagining some big video display that starts out with a molecule and lets people choose from some changes they can make to it (oxidation, adding a fluorine, changing a carbon to nitrogen, etc.) The parts of the molecule where these change are allowed could glow or something when an option is chosen, then when you make the change, the structure snazzily shifts and the display tells you if you made a better drug, a worse one, something inactive, or a flat-out poison. You'd have to choose your options and structures carefully, but you might be able to come up with something.

But other things would just have to be seen and demonstrated, which is tricky. Seen on a screen, the Belousov-Zhabotinskii reaction just looks like a special effect, and a rather cheap one at that. But seeing it done by mixing up real chemicals and solutions right in front of you is much more impressive, but it's hard for me to think of a way to do that which would be done often enough (and on large enough scale) for people to see it, and wouldn't cost too much to do (supplies, staff, flippin' insurance, etc.)

If you had to build out the chemistry hallway at the museum, then, what would you fill it with? Suggestions welcome.

Comments (70) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Chemical News


1. Biff on February 18, 2013 10:40 AM writes...

Around ten years ago or so, I had the chance to don some 3-d headgear and use one of those room-sized, SGI Reality Centers to try to fit small molecules into binding pockets on a drug target. Super cool. I remember thinking that the experience was perfect for a museum, but, of course, the cost of the equipment at the time was far out of reach for anything but perhaps the Smithsonian. If similar equipment is more affordable today, maybe 3d simulations of reactions - even cooking - might be interesting.

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2. CMCguy on February 18, 2013 10:46 AM writes...

There is a lot of cool potential "pyrotechnic" displays available on the internet such a alkaline metals and water (which you have previously linked) then a display of correlation of what gives fireworks different colors but as suggested watching videos does not provide the same hands on experiences. Based on my kids curriculum even high school chemistry today is pretty tame and limited live demonstrations because of costs/training, restricted access to chemicals and lawsuit concerns.

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3. lt on February 18, 2013 10:58 AM writes...

Fireworks are good, a chemistry museum display could have methanol burners with some Sr, Ba, Li, K, Na salts. You could have small gas explosions too, perhaps a small acetylene cannon with various gases.

Electroplating could also used in a display where, for example, some item is plated with gold and then stripped again in an endless loop. A display into which you could feed a key off your keychain for automated electroplating would also be very cool...

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4. rhodiumm on February 18, 2013 10:59 AM writes...

I think flame tests would be fun. Behind a glass put a bunsen burner then have fine metal meshes with various white solids such as NaCl, KCl, SrCl2 etc. Push a button to move one or another mesh into the flame and have another dial to add solids to the mesh. Places have gas stoves and fireplaces so I think the insurance is not out of the question. Another idea I have had is inspired by the lava lamp. Take a sealed container with water and a hot, close to saturated copper sulfate or other inorganic solution and reversibly let it cool and heat up again (with stirring). Watch crystals fall out of the homogeneous solution.

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5. pharmacologyrules on February 18, 2013 11:20 AM writes...

a wax statue of derek lowe?

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6. anonymous on February 18, 2013 11:24 AM writes...

I would do something like the Vietnam War memorial. A black marble wall with the names of everybody with a degree in chemistry who is now doing something other than chemistry.

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7. jasnieres on February 18, 2013 11:30 AM writes...

Here is a the chemistry section of the Museum of Discovery in Paris:
It's a somewhat run-down old-fashioned type of museum (at least it was when I used to visit it with my kids a few years ago) but does try and have a lot of hands-on displays and demonstrations. Unfortunately the web-site only appears to be in French, but I've taken non-French speaking kids there and there was no barrier to them enjoying it as much as everyone else.

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8. rockhopper on February 18, 2013 11:55 AM writes...

The Deutches Museum in Munich has section dedicated to chemistry but this exhibit being rebuilt at the moment. There is also a section dedicated to pharmacy (there should be some medchem stuff there) but I didn't have time to look at it during my last visit. It's a huge museum and I spent lots of time in the mining and metallurgy sections. Beside good beer Munich has also something to offer to people interested in science and technology:

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9. MTK on February 18, 2013 11:55 AM writes...

Things like glow sticks or chemical cold packs are easy demonstrations of the effects of breaking and making bonds.

In fact put some chemical cold packs next to an exothermic reaction and show the bonds formed or broken in each and it would make for a decent demonstration in a science museum. Or at least I think it would.

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10. Alex W. on February 18, 2013 11:56 AM writes...

If you ever find yourself in Munich, the Deutsches Museum has a pretty singular chemistry exhibit. Row upon row of individual automated chemistry demos activated with a button-push.

Their web site says it's closed for a redesign now though! Darn. It was terribly dated, but it was really unique.

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11. Alex W. on February 18, 2013 12:04 PM writes...

Actually if this J Chem Educ article is any indication the exhibits I mention could've been in place since the '50s, so if you've missed them I guess you only have yourself (or your birthdate) to blame.

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12. milkshake on February 18, 2013 12:07 PM writes...

I would add a large collection of various fluorescent dyes, and there could be tie-in how the lambda max of absorbption and emission and the Stokes shift can be changed by chemical modification of the molecule - an opportunity for showing lots of complicated chemical formulas (man-made and natural products) and there could be a seque into dye lasers, with one on display. Or application in cell biology. Glow in dark colors never cease to awe

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13. a. nonymaus on February 18, 2013 12:10 PM writes...

Chromatographic separation of chlorophylls a and b from each other and the various carotenes and other pigments. It should be doable with a sheet of gypsum wallboard with the cardboard on one side stripped off as the stationary phase (a la mode Amoozadeh, et al. Asian J. Chem. 2008, 20, 5873 - 5877). For the chlorophyll mixture, I'm sure the groundskeepers can spare some grass clippings. I'm not sure where to get a 4' x 8' TLC tank though. For a mobile phase, I'm open to suggestions.

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14. anon the II on February 18, 2013 12:15 PM writes...

I love chemistry. It’s my life, but…

Chemistry is not for the masses. It’s something that you undertake because you want to understand a bit better how the world works. And you don’t like any of the explanations that you get from non-chemists. So you subject yourself to a year of unbearable misery (think Nernst equation) because you believe there is something on the other side. For some of us, that came with organic. The light starts to come on. For most of us, fireworks and color are not what chemistry is all about.

I think a good chemistry exhibit would consist of a dark room. You walk in and the door closes. All of a sudden, you get wacked up side the head by something. Then the light comes on and you see this giant mechanical hand sweeping through the air. Here it comes again. Except this time you figure out why you got slapped and you go “aha!” and you duck so the hand misses you. You have a real warm fuzzy feeling now that you figured it out. That’s what chemistry is all about.

Then the door opens and you exit into another dark room where….

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15. anon the II on February 18, 2013 12:23 PM writes...

That's interesting. It looked OK in the preview.

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16. Chemjobber on February 18, 2013 12:25 PM writes...

Does anyone know:

1) how the modern science museum movement got started?
2) why there aren't more chemistry-oriented museums?

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17. King on February 18, 2013 12:33 PM writes...

Pretty obvious place to start: things that involve your senses: sight, smell, taste, sound, touch. Chemilumenescence, frangrances, flavors, explosions, adhesives. Then explain those concepts.

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18. matt on February 18, 2013 1:05 PM writes...

I like the flame ideas, electroplating perhaps a penny maybe, and I'm sure there are a bunch of ideas which could be taken from the oil refinery processes.

A combined history/chemistry exhibit could discuss an old moonshine still, with explanation for the distillation process, and some explanation for the difference between methanol and ethanol, how the wrong product might have been obtained sometimes, and even a simple description of how they affect the body. Alcohol is always relevant.

It may be too advanced for kids to completely understand, but I think a big working model of ATP synthase would be eye-opening. Even if all they get is that the human body has zillions of these little water-turbine-looking things spinning around inside, that might give some appreciation of how complicated things are. I am personally continually awed and amazed by these. Big working models of other amazing proteins would also be neat. A little more biology than chemistry perhaps.

Again, perhaps a little advanced, but a working model which walked a ball-and-stick example medication (or even methanol/ethanol from the above moonshine exhibit) through the body to illustrate basic ADMET principles.

Another exhibit might use some of the science behind the Day-Glo paint you linked a while back. Maybe show Day-Glo colors with/without UV, talk about how the bonds "catch" UV and re-radiate as visible light. Segue to fabric color brighteners. For bonus, screenshots of fluorescence-tagged tissue (need something widely recognizable and known), to illustrate how it's being put to use in biology. (The video of ATP synthase spinning away, using a fluorescence tagged string to illuminate the motion, might fit in here.)

Speaking of which, detergents might kick off a discussion of polarity, hydrophilic/hydrophobic,...rinse and repeat.

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19. newnickname on February 18, 2013 1:31 PM writes...

Years ago, I heard about a museum (or a curator in a larger museum) who collected special or distinctive chemical samples of historical (NOT chemical) significance. I met someone who was a post-doc with Arthur Stoll at Chicago and they showed me a sample of chlorophyll (no big whoop) that was actually prepared by Willstatter (big whoop).

I contacted the Chem Heritage Foundation and the Smithsonian but no one knows what I'm talking about.

Does anyone here know the museum I'm talking about? The Willstatter-chlorophyll might be donated there.


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20. Puff the Mutant Dragon on February 18, 2013 1:33 PM writes...

Totally do something re illegal drugs. "What is freebasing?" or "Chirality and Crystal Meth" for example. Would definitely draw both interest and controversy, and both are good for a museum.

Other than that tough to say. Part of what fascinated me about chemistry in high school (and eventually drew me towards that kind of stuff) was the way seemingly minor changes in structure or molecular formula could make a big difference. When I was in high school, for example, I was totally baffled by the way ethanol and ethylene glycol seemed to have such similar molecular formulas -- just an extra oxygen atom -- and yet were so different. So I kinda like Derek's idea of having something interactive where you add or subtract groups from a molecule and see what changes. I think that might draw some people in.

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21. luysii on February 18, 2013 1:37 PM writes...

I'd do a holographic set up of some of the reactions already done in 3 d in the link provided by Clayden's text. Say the Robinson Annelation in slow motion. Then perhaps a bit on what the steroid nucleus is, what has been done with them, sex hormones etc. etc. People could either rotate the movie, or walk about the 3 display to watch it from all sides.

The only worry is that some of the animations are almost sexual.

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22. Liberal Arts Chemist on February 18, 2013 2:13 PM writes...

If we are not concerned with equipment maintenance issues and consumables then we need to take a page from the physicists and push our Big Questions topics into the museums. For chemistry that would have to be the Origins of Life question. The Miller - Urey experiment has a lot of flaws but provides an excellent gateway to the topic and a bank of them set up for different conditions coupled to a display on amino acid chirality with hands on models would be a winner to my eyes.

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23. Liberal Arts Chemist on February 18, 2013 2:14 PM writes...

If we are not concerned with equipment maintenance issues and consumables then we need to take a page from the physicists and push our Big Questions topics into the museums. For chemistry that would have to be the Origins of Life question. The Miller - Urey experiment has a lot of flaws but provides an excellent gateway to the topic and a bank of them set up for different conditions coupled to a display on amino acid chirality with hands on models would be a winner to my eyes.

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24. Anonymous on February 18, 2013 2:19 PM writes...

i would include a flexible OLED display, people love their electronics

for particle physics, a cloud chamber would be nice (#11's link would indicate they have one in the munich museum)

i'm not sure what the throughput is for Nocera's leaf, but maybe you could have a couple of them running side-by-side, with and without illumination. the H2 and O2 produced could be sparked to detonation at regular intervals...

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25. C on February 18, 2013 2:23 PM writes...

An extensive modeling set would probably keep even me entertained for an hour or so.

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26. Paul on February 18, 2013 2:58 PM writes...

I would follow the aphorism of Georg Lichtenberg (1742-1799):

"A physical experiment which makes a bang
is always worth more than a quiet one.
Therefore a man cannot strongly enough ask of Heaven:
if it wants to let him discover something,
may it be something that makes a bang.
It will resound into eternity."

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27. gippgig on February 18, 2013 4:17 PM writes...

Element samples - each sample should be in the form of a cylinder (or box, etc.) with the same diameter & contain the same number of atoms. This would lead into an explanation of atomic volume ("Why isn't gold 79 times taller than hydrogen?".
For a do-it-yourself demonstration chromatography is hard to beat. All you need is paper towels & food coloring (yes, you can easily separate green into blue & yellow; I did that back when I was a kid). Do try this at home.
There should be a fully-equipped lab where visitors can watch real chemistry (i.e., total syntheses) being done with lots of "what is this piece of equipment, what is it used for, & how does it work?" explanations. Someone would be explaining just what the chemists are currently doing and how it fits into the overall project.
An exhibit on rocket fuels should be interesting.
Include samples of different-colored solutions containing the same element in different oxidation states (good lead-in for several topics).
Have identically-sized blocks of i.e. ordinary CaO and Ca-48 O-18. You could easily feel the difference between isotopes.
Have exhibits demonstrating the greenhouse effect, the chemistry behind the ozone hole, & other environmental issues.

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28. MIMD on February 18, 2013 4:28 PM writes...

I'd be sure to put in some of the Gilbert and Sears white-metal-folding-box chemistry sets many got for Christmas.....

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29. Andrew (@_byronmiller) on February 18, 2013 4:31 PM writes...

My favourite chemistry exhibits are usually historical ones - for example, the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford (UK) has some lovely old analytical kits, some of Florey and Chain's original penicillin samples (including one recovered from urine of the first patients... lovely...), and some of Dorothy Hodgkins' original models and plates. The Science Museum in London has more of this ilk.

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30. pcelsus on February 18, 2013 4:42 PM writes...

I believe the ultimate goal of a science museum is "how can we make children more interested in science?" So, the shows/experiments must be simple but interesting enough so that a child can't take his/her eyes out of it. I think "iodine clock" is a nice one. You can put 10 beakers next to each other and make the reactions follow each other.

Separating two layers of a solution might be interesting for a child. This one doesn't cost anything at all and can be recycled too. Or they can be kept in small and sealed flasks so that children can check them out. Color is a plus !

There should be also shows/documentaries about famous chemists. How the elements were discovered, who discovered them, what are their main uses now etc. I think it is interesting enough to know that iphones have several elements from Lanthanide Series.

By the way the Museum of Science in Boston is even worse than that one. The only thing about chemistry is crystals! There is a periodic table which is really in bad condition. The only interesting part about it is its history. People who go there and read who made it will understand this. But, anyway it is not even attractive to a child. I go there almost every month and never see a child in that section. In the shop there are some books about elements, periodic table, some chemistry kits and games. But, I don't think they are popular.

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31. Totò on February 18, 2013 5:08 PM writes...

The New York Hall of Science has a great set of hands-on experiments in biochemistry, including some related to med chem topics. They are recommended for kids 8 and up, but I've seen 5 or 6 year olds pleasantly occupied.

The lab is supported by the Pfizer Foundation. I wonder how they got the Wall Street analysts to evaluate the Return on Investment for this program.

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32. gippgig on February 18, 2013 5:11 PM writes...

A look at chemical disasters (i.e., see "175 Times. And Then the Catastrophe.", Sept. 18, 2009). You want explosions...?
An examination of the "arsenic life" story would be a good but less spectacular example of how things go wrong.
Hot topic: chemistry of forensic analysis.
Obviously, chemistry in everyday life (i.e., rusting). (Note - by applying an external voltage you can (partially) reverse rusting. I've restored some long-lost tools that were hunks of rust that way and I've never heard of anyone else trying this.)
Don't forget "Things I Won't Work With" (even just videos would be impressive)!
I saw a movie ages ago where diffraction of water waves demonstrated the principle of x-ray crystallography. Just rotate the sample (grid) and see which orientations give diffraction.
Sure I'll come up with more.

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33. gippgig on February 18, 2013 5:19 PM writes...

A look at the apparently controversial issue of whether the Hindenburg disaster was caused by the skin igniting (and why using a paint containing powdered aluminum & iron oxide was a really bad idea).

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34. muuunchen on February 18, 2013 5:44 PM writes...

Came here to say Munich, and voila ... not disappointed by many other commenters!

There was a setup in the physics section where students from a particular group were working on their projects, as a live part of the exhibition!

Pharmaceutical museum in Heidelberg Castle (?) was also raaad... wish I had more time to spend there.

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35. geekazoid on February 18, 2013 5:58 PM writes...

Holy geek travels, Batman!

Derek, thanks to your link to the HMNH, I stumbled across their travel programs.

And now my day is made. :)

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36. Incha on February 18, 2013 6:01 PM writes...

Modelling kits......... ran this in the National Museum of Scotland one year and it fascinated kids and parents alike. Had various molecules for people to try from water to glucose, and questions to think about once you had made them. Of course some of the kids made castles and dragons and all sorts.

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37. Eric Jablow on February 18, 2013 6:01 PM writes...


Do you remember the lecture on the Miller-Urey experiment that Julia Child filmed for the Smithsonian? Her description of 9 grams of calcium chloride as “one teaspoon and one scant teaspoon” was quite striking.

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38. JRnonchemist on February 18, 2013 6:06 PM writes...

Skilled manpower requirement for chemistry demonstration seems like an automation problem. That said, automation is closer to being something that I can use than chemistry is. So maybe that the hammer seeing a nail thing.

What I would do? Maybe a combination zoo/museum of biological samples. Get a bunch of mice, and keep them dosed, except for the controls, on stuff that has a noticeable effect on them, that doesn't kill them too quickly. Cocaine, meth, opiates, CNS poisons or analogues. Have displays to compare and contrast the effects on poisons on organs, tissues, and blood samples. Tables of dosing and mortality for the stronger poisons.

Ideally, poisons would be selected for a combination of relevance to common recreationally used substances, and of the ability of mice to tolerate long term chronic dosing with notable effects. The substances and doses with faster lethal effects would probably be too resource intensive to make a dynamic display out of. Those would go on the mortality tables.

Each cage would have mice with a common substance and dosage. There would be an electronic interactive display for the dosing records of the mice in the cage. (Maybe even a back end with an electronic tagging system for each mouse, that tracks location, and allows the mouse to be scanned into the system when it is dosed.) Probably also a visual display showing how the substance breaks down over time.

The major drawback is that a) anyone who wasn't already on a animal rights activist hitlist would end up on one and b) animal rights activists would likely pose too much of a danger to kids for parents to let their children visit.

I honestly think something like this is urgently needed. I didn't need this to develop my intuitive grasp of toxicology. However, in several areas of public policy I see evidence that the general level of understanding is not anywhere good enough.

I did have fun thinking about ways to try and present the data for a younger audience.

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39. MoMO on February 18, 2013 6:48 PM writes...

How about a Zyclon B display- the agent used in concentration camps in WWII?

Then a wall of (in)famous chemists such as Wilhelm Normann-killed more people than all wars combined by inventing hydrogenated oils. Then the guy who invented thalidomide, just for for the kids!

Then put a diorama from the Meth lab in "Breaking Bad"-surely an inspiration for Americans everywhere!

There are no shortage of the wrong heroes of Chemistry!

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40. Andrew Molitor on February 18, 2013 6:54 PM writes...

I'm not a chemist.

Still, it seems like you could build a system based on a common store of some modestly exciting acid, with some stations that let you do stuff like:

- clean your own penny
- operate a battery to run a light or a little robot, etc
- perform a baking soda reaction, the volcano thing
- mix up a buffer solution (to what end?)

By letting people dial in concentrations in a simple fashion, obviously somewhere between "very mild" and "only slightly dangerous" you could illustrate certain effects.

You'd need someone with SOME training to maintain the thing, and the design would have to be pretty robust to avoid slopping acid all over the kids in the event of a tube coming loose, but it should be within the capacity of museum staff to manage. Build all the parts small, spring-load the valves so you have to hold them open, and so on, and you should be able to contain the rate of consumption.

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41. gippgig on February 18, 2013 6:59 PM writes...

What's wrong with this movie/TV show? Even more fun for the chemists than the visitors!
Speaking of TV, and totally off topic but how often is there a TV show about a clinical trial, in Washington, D.C. (no idea about elsewheres; check your local listings) 9:30-10:30PM Feb. 21 Channel 32 (WHUT) is showing Rare - "A woman whose daughter has Hermansky-Pudlak syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, harnesses the power of the Internet to form an advocacy group to pressure the National Institutes of Health to undertake a clinical drug trial."

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42. newnickname on February 18, 2013 7:04 PM writes...

Temperature - solubility demo? Have a sealed globe containing water + salt rotating from the cold side to the hot side of a chamber at a rate such that the salt of choice (something with a steep curve (KNO3? CaCl2?) will disappear into solution as it rotates thru the hot side and reappear as it passes thru the cold side. The ingredients are safe and it is unlikely to explode. For the salts mentioned, you only have to go from rt to, say, 60C so there is barely the danger of getting scalded or maimed even if the demo gets knocked over.

Pesticides? Press a button and release one pest (cockroach, etc.) into a clear tube or box; press other buttons to release various agents: repellents, pesticides, attractants, excitants (anyone ever see cockroaches respond to periplanone B? Find a human version of THAT and you'll have a Billion -- no -- a Trillion Dollar Molecule.); press another button to sweep the system clear for the next person in line. Maybe add dose-response for more advanced museum-goers. Have people enter their observations as "data" and update the results with each test so people can relate to how drug testing works (statistics; outliers; etc.).

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43. gippgig on February 18, 2013 7:20 PM writes...

#38 - not mice, spiders (classic experiment from long ago).
#40 - dilute acetic acid (vinegar) or citric acid (By the way, anyone know of a good source for about a pound of industrial-grade citric acid in the D.C. area?) - perfectly safe (if slow to clean your penny).
Definitely include the story about the high school class that voted to ban dihydrogen monoxide!
Fireflies are a great example for chemistry in everyday (well, every summer day in certain areas) life.

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44. Bryan on February 18, 2013 7:55 PM writes...

In the field of biochemistry, Arthur Olsen has done some neat work trying to find ways to combine physical and computer models in virtual reality so that you can play around with crystal structures and try to fit ligands into binding pockets. See for example his talk he gave at VIZBI 2011

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45. Ed on February 18, 2013 8:14 PM writes...

Maybe a picture of an organic chemist with the description: People with knowledge of organic chemistry used to work at pharmaceutical industry in the 19th and 20th century.

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46. CL on February 18, 2013 9:35 PM writes...

I volunteered one summer during college in the chemistry lab at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, OR. Visitors got the opportunity to carry out all different types of wet chemistry experiments with the help of staff or their chaperones (with goggles and aprons!). We also did more "dangerous" demos about hourly and had less interactive displays like electrolysis of water running constantly, pearlescent solutions, etc. Ironic that there's a better chemistry exhibit at the Portland science museum than in Cambridge/Boston!

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47. RIck M on February 18, 2013 11:16 PM writes...

Catalysts make for nice demos. Compare rates of decomposition of hydrogen peroxide by sand, salt, sugar, MnO2.... Can also show oxidation of methanol vapor using platinum wire (which will glow white hot) (don't try this in an unvented area - one product is ketene).

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48. hn on February 19, 2013 12:53 AM writes...

Something about smells, how molecules are recognized. You can talk about concepts like concentration, volatility, and diffusion. You could have fruit esters and some stinky stuff too. Kids love stinky stuff! "Smell this! Ewww!"

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49. gippgig on February 19, 2013 1:33 AM writes...

#46: That brings to mind something odd I've noticed - it seems that diluting my green tea only slightly can sometimes changes it from sweet to bitter. I'm guessing the concentration of sugar has dropped below the level required to bind to the sweet receptors while the less abundant but higher-affinity bitter compounds still bind their receptor. If this is correct it could be turned into a startling demonstration.
For the more technically inclined visitor include an examination of the incredibly weird properties of plutonium (i.e., it seems that plutonium metal has different valences in different crystal structures).
Speaking of plutonium, the creation of transuranium elements would be a good exhibit. (Transuranium elements and chemistry in everyday life seem about as unrelated as you can get yet most smoke detectors use americium-241. Back in the 60's who would've thought....)

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50. gippgig on February 19, 2013 3:12 AM writes...

Creation of the elements (You want explosions? It's hard to beat a supernova.)

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51. Extremophile on February 19, 2013 3:44 AM writes...

@14 I think it is the purest form of chemistry that ordinary people see. They see the real magic of chemistry. Because, what we described as Nernst-Equation is something we people invented in order to make it more processable. Take the Kekulè structure of the benzene ring. Are there really any "lines" that connect the carbon atoms? No, there are electron probabilities. I remember an article that was brought up in here for discussion. It was about "the cavities" in the enzymes, which can be also explained by probability of finding the electrons in that area. But again, probability is also something we invented in order to give the observation a "meaning". Whenever we define an observation, we put a constraint to it and it loses its integrity. What ordinary people see or feel is the unprocessed chemistry, in its purist form, that is directly perceived by our senses seeing, hearing, smelling, etc.. I think it is the real magic of chemistry.

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52. Dan on February 19, 2013 8:54 AM writes...

I recommend visiting the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. They have a museum and their webpage has some ideas. There was a slide ruler in one of the display cabinets and I thought, I had one of those...made me feel like I should be in a museum!

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53. Morten G on February 19, 2013 9:03 AM writes...

Let them discover helium by comparing spectrums. I've always been fascinated by the fact that helium was discovered in the Sun before it was on Earth.

Have tartaric acid models in clear plastic so the visitors can build 3D crystals and purify the enantiomers by manual crystallisation.
Racemically pure tartaric acid solutions in quartz blocks that you can place between a polarised laser source and a polarised filter. Rotation is odd though and doesn't really tell you much about chemistry... Spearmint and carraway is a cool demonstration of chirality too.

Some kind of demonstrations about the differences between colour and fluorescence? Change this bond, change the colours on a screen? IDK.

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54. jjbp on February 19, 2013 9:11 AM writes...

A Soxhlet extraction. There's something a bit hypnotic to the general public about watching a good reflux and when the syphon empties the thimble, that looks neat too. You could also leave it going for ages unattended, relatively safely.

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55. Haber-Bosch on February 19, 2013 9:16 AM writes...

The visitor center at BASF in Ludwigshafen is the most impressive and amazing chemistry museum I have ever seen. It is a must-see if you ever find yourself near Frankfurt.

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56. Niek on February 19, 2013 9:46 AM writes...

I like the previous ideas of continous or reversible processes wihich demonstrate chemical aspects like the plating idea. Another thing you could do is electrolysis of water to form hydrogen & oxygen, and then recombining them either in a flame or electrochemical cell and make the heat from the flame/electricity from the cell do some work for you.

What about spin over substances? The explanation would be relatively difficult, but it is easy to make a heater heat a part of a plate when being pushed by a button, and then the plate changing color because it changes from low to high spin.

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57. Niek on February 19, 2013 9:47 AM writes...

I like the previous ideas of continous or reversible processes wihich demonstrate chemical aspects like the plating idea. Another thing you could do is electrolysis of water to form hydrogen & oxygen, and then recombining them either in a flame or electrochemical cell and make the heat from the flame/electricity from the cell do some work for you.

What about spin over substances? The explanation would be relatively difficult, but it is easy to make a heater heat a part of a plate when being pushed by a button, and then the plate changing color because it changes from low to high spin.

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58. Peter Shenkin on February 19, 2013 9:53 AM writes...

Be sure to have a Soxhlet extractor running.

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59. wiseacre on February 19, 2013 9:59 AM writes...

It wouldn't be complete without a diorama featuring Homo chemiens pharmaceuticalensis in its native environment, now sadly disappearing because of business climate change.

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60. Peter Shenkin on February 19, 2013 10:43 AM writes...

Another idea. At the cafeteria or food stand, relate the foods to the chemistry of an important component: caffeine for coffee and tea, ascorbic acid for an orange, etc. How to do this? Well, the items could be bar-coded and then the buyer could take them to a display where they could be swiped and the exhibit could be shown. One could imagine a deep treatment of this: coffee->caffeine-> links about extraction, purification, occurrence, synthesis, biosynthesis, pharmacology, discovery history of human use.

Maybe for some food items there'd be a way to bring in the chemistry of cooking, or even of things like food preservatives. Does anyone remember the label of Screaming Yellow Zonkers?

At a museum shop, one could do something similar for clothing items (cotton, rayon, wool....); paper items (cellulose and the technology of making paper) and so on.

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61. Goode chemist on February 19, 2013 10:54 AM writes...

My husband got me Modernist Cuisine as an early birthday present. It will be used as a great reference today as we cook venison tenderloin via our rigged up sous vide method. I think the main reason I got into chemistry is because I love to cook.

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62. Paul on February 19, 2013 12:15 PM writes...

Would it be possible to rig up an atomic force microscope so people could "see" individual atoms?

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63. DrugA on February 19, 2013 12:29 PM writes...

First, you have to decide who your audience is and what you'd like them to learn. Is it grade-school kids? Do you want them to know that chemistry is important, that it underpins much of modern life? Do you want them to actually learn something about how molecules behave? Or is your lesson more about the scientific process? (In reality, you'll have multiple audiences, and multiple messages, but you have to break them down this way or you'll fail.)
I've taken my kids to lots of science museums. In the beginning, I was skeptical that any kids would get anything more than "gee whiz" out of an exhibit. But I've been surprised.
They've learned a lot of biology. I think that's partly because it operates at a human scale, but even more because it has a narrative. They've learned a fair bit of astronomy too, which makes sense because we talk about it in pictures and models. Geology has a narrative that's easy to grasp. Paleontology, of course, although exhibits are surprisingly bad at the scale of time. I'm not sure physics is that effective. Newtonian physics is fun to play with, but unless you have an adult forcing the issue, you can play without getting any concepts. More abstract physics has all the same problems as chemistry. (Interestingly, statistics and probability, which in my view are essential to understanding science, but also to being a good citizen, should be fun and easy, but too often get tucked away in a corner.)
I think I would build a chemistry exhibit around the dye industry. You could start with a pre-industrial diorama. Cochineal dyes. Show how industrial chemistry democratizes color. Explain how that leads to medicines. Watch dials painted in with radium. I think you could do something with catalysts. You'd want dayglo in there, just cause. For museum purposes, chemists should probably cede DNA to the biologists, but claim nanotechnology back from the physicists. I think you do want oil refineries, but many chemistry exhibits tend to end up with plastics and a lot of modern "garbage". I'd bring it back to where we started, the chemistry of the natural world. Nature can still do things we can't.

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64. gippgig on February 19, 2013 2:30 PM writes...

The development of DNA sequencing technology. Few people realize it has advanced roughly a thousand times faster than integrated circuits!
Make your own graphene with Scotch tape.
Anyone mention superconductors?

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65. gippgig on February 19, 2013 3:13 PM writes...

I should qualify my comment - the speed of DNA sequencing has increased about a thousand times more than the speed of ICs; the amount of DNA sequenced and number of transistors on a chip have increased by roughly equivalent amounts.

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66. Peevester on February 19, 2013 5:53 PM writes...

The museum of Science and Industry in Chicago has this nifty table with the elements printed on it, which you pick up with plastic pucks, and when you push the pucks together, it shows what chemical is produced on a screen. There's a huge library of compounds in it, really fun to play with even for a non-chemist.

A bunch of FoldIt stations would make a great museum display too, I think.

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67. Ted on February 20, 2013 1:48 AM writes...

Ha ha ha...

Funny thing. After my last (pharma) company went under, I actually joined up with those cookbook folks...

One of my side tasks is to come up with some chemistry displays for the lab. I've had pretty positive responses to the Briggs-Rauscher (oscillating) reaction and the methylene blue (blue bottle) oxidation demo.

I'd like to come up with some rapid-growth crystallizations that could be trained along a substrate. I'm thinking a case where someone writes their name out on glass with a saturated solution and then watches the crystals radiate out?

Still, there's just no way to compete with the modernist kitchen making perfectly textured puffball bursts of sorbet by dropping pectin-thickened juice into liquid nitrogen and serving it to the wide-eyed onlookers...


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68. Edward Wright on February 23, 2013 1:26 PM writes...

" it's hard to come up with an automated, foolproof display that can run behind glass (and still attract anyone's interest)."

Use robots. They're getting cheaper and will take care of the interest problem.

Beyond that, think "activities" rather than just exhibits. Look more to hackerspaces and DIY bio labs as models, rather than traditional museums.

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69. RS on February 24, 2013 8:15 PM writes...

Go to the Deutsches Museum in Munich for a world class science experience in chemistry.

Old school but extremely good school. They serve up the real deal of real lab artifacts and settings, not some cartoon versions on cheap LCD screens that passes for museum experience in far too many US science centers.

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70. Zippo on February 25, 2013 10:45 PM writes...

The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia (also home to the Chemical Heritage Fndn) featured a large room devoted exclusively to chemistry many years ago. As a kid in the 60's I vividly remember spending hours roaming around this room studying each display carefully. I believe the entire thing was sponsored by one of the local chemical companies.

In addition to a wall-size periodic table containing actual samples of elements and what they are good for, there was a smell-bar where you could not only take a few whiffs of fruity esters but some foul smelling thiols and amines as well.

One of the most fascinating of the "press the button and watch the automated demo behind the glass" exhibits was one showing the electrolysis of water. When that was completed and a couple cc's of hydrogen and oxygen were collected they flowed into a cell where an electric spark would recombine them with a bang.

Nearby was a lecture hall where chemistry demos for kids were performed several times each day.

Sadly the chemistry room at "The Franklin" is long gone.

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