Thursday, March 06, 2014

The art of molecules

Here’s a little book review about an intriguing field. It appeared in Chemistry World.


Molecular Aesthetics
Ed. Peter Weibel and Ljiljana Fruk
ZKM-Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe/MIT Press, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-262-01878-4

A conference held in Karlsruhe in 2011 was perhaps the first to address the topic of molecular aesthetics. To judge from this collection of articles and imagery stemming from that meeting, it must have been an event in equal measure stimulating, entertaining and perplexing.

The editors Peter Weibel and Ljiljana Fruk have taken the wise decision not simply to put together a collection of papers from the meeting, but rather, to augment such contributions with a wide collection of reprints on the topic, along with a very generous selection of images of related artworks. The result is an engrossing 500-page digest which will surely contain something for everyone.

Roald Hoffmann characteristically puts the issue in a nutshell: “By virtue of not being comfortable in the official literature, aesthetic judgements in chemistry, largely oral, acquire the character of folk literature.” A question not quite addressed here is whether this is how things must be or whether it should be resisted.

The book is nothing if not diverse, which means that the quality is bound to fluctuate. The paranoid guerrilla rantings of the Critical Art Ensemble and the opaque semiotic posturing of Eric Allie offer few useful insights. Kenneth Snelson’s model of electronic structure is decidedly “outsider science.” Some of the artworks, although striking, bear little on the issue of molecular aesthetics. But I’m not complaining – such inclusiveness adds to the richness of the stew.

My own view is much in accord with that advanced here by Joachim Schummer: if we really want to talk about molecular aesthetics then we must cease warbling about molecules that are “beautiful” (meaning pleasing) because of their symmetry and instead conduct a serious investigation of what the term could mean – what criteria we should use for thinking about the ways we represent chemistry and molecules visually, conceptually and sensorially, and about the delight

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