♫ “Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred reactions…”
That song from the musical Rent is in my head as I write this post on seasons. It’s a catchy one that brings back memories of my misspent youth hanging out with people who would sing showtunes at the drop of a hat in perfect four-part harmony!
One of the things I love about working in a chemistry lab and constantly making new compounds as part of my research is the beautiful accidental shapes and patterns molecules can assemble into, given enough time – and how our pattern-seeing brains can ascribe poetic meanings to these patterns based on what we want to see! Two recent examples from my own work caught my eye enough recently to pull out a camera and snap a shot. They tell a chronologically-consistent story of the changing seasons, as the colours of Bern’s horizon have changed from auburn to snowy white this last month, I’ve seen fallen leaves and swirls of snow in the bottom of round-bottomed flasks:
Obviously crystals are some of the most beautiful formations that we can see in the lab, with their sparkle and sharp, defined edges: needles, plates, and more complex symmetries. As chemists, we love large ‘single crystals’ which can be subjected to X-ray diffraction experiments to generate the molecular structures which illustrate the pages of so many research articles these days. I had an old starting-material from much of my work in Trinity College Dublin (2,6-Bis(trimethylsilyl)ethynylpyridine, if you must know), which loved to crystallise. I believe I fished out a crystal of it from a reaction mixture once, hoping it would tell me something about a new exciting product, but alas no. Nonetheless, my colleague Dr Salvador Blasco solved this structure, which, despite not telling us anything new, was pleasingly symmetrical:
I often think with wonder about the deep insight of early chemists into the nature of matter that they could be so certain of chemical structures with a small range of tools like melting-points, taste, and a series of tests and probes; we have access to so many techniques nowadays that we take for granted that can show us, atom by atom, how a molecule fits together. So often, the early chemists of a century and more ago were right or close to it based on wisdom intuition and methodical analysis.
With major developments in materials science in recent decades, tools such as Scanning Electron Microscopy and Helium Ion Microscopy have allowed us to look closely at how the surfaces of substances are arranged on a slightly larger scale than single molecules, which can be vital to understanding them. More pertinent to the whimsical theme of of this post is just the fascination you feel when seeing that, on zooming all the way in, the flexible gel-like substance you have made looks like a plate of spaghetti, or a woven cloth. The picture below comes from my Dalton Transactions article, thanks to my collaborators Drs Kotova, Bell and Prof Boland, working at CRANN/AMBER in Trinity College Dublin:
There is beauty and fascination everywhere. It’s just a matter of how far you need to zoom in to see it!