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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

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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