The art of chemistry

Imagine a whiff of Chanel No. 4. Nobody knows now what it was like. But a few things seem certain. Like its more famous successor, it would have contained substances evoking flowers and fruit, yet it was synthesised in a laboratory, not extracted directly from nature. For chemistry, people are slowly realising, has its aesthetic side. Creative personalities from artists to chefs are using chemistry to raise their work to new heights.

Now comes Luca Turin, a fragrance chemist who has written The Secret of Scent. Turin uses charming synaesthetic similes to describe different aromas and is entertaining about the surprises that our chemical senses throw at us. Try this seasonal experiment, Turin suggests. Put strawberries and ice in a blender and reduce to a granita-like crush. After ten seconds, lift the lid from the blender and take a sniff. The smell is not what you might expect, in fact it’s anything but, as you can discover at the end of this article.

The secrets of taste have already been revealed by Hervé This, the chemist pioneer of “molecular gastronomy”, the scientific trend that is inspiring the chefs of the world’s top restaurants such as Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck in Berkshire and Ferràn Adrià at El Bulli near Barcelona.

Artists such as Damien Hirst and Simon Patterson are also making use of chemistry. For them it is the peculiar visual language of the subject that excites—the colourful, childlike shapes of molecular models or the familiar graphic icon of the Periodic Table.

Chemicals are all around us. They do useful things. Once, this utilitarian message was used to sell chemistry as a useful and potentially lucrative subject for study. Now the message is heard on a higher intellectual plane—forget the utility, feel the delight. “Chemicals” used to be what was under the kitchen sink. Now they’re on the restaurant table and in the boudoir. Chemicals offer pleasures all can share if we are prepared to use our senses.

Yet ask a child to produce a drawing about chemistry, as Samantha Tang does for a schools scheme at Nottingham University, and they will draw an environmental disaster or a bottle of shampoo. Adults take just as dreary a view. But tempt people with the aesthetics of the matter, and suddenly chemistry’s no longer on the defensive. It takes the battle to the enemy, the people who believe that chemicals are responsible for their allergies and their limescale but somehow not for Chanel No. 5, Grand Marnier soufflé and Titian blue. “The point about chemicals is that we can’t survive without them,” says Martyn Poliakoff, professor of chemistry at Nottingham University. “Artists need chemicals just as much as scientists. They have an opportunity to contribute to this.”

Newton may have unweaved the rainbow for Keats. Hervé This may seek to do the same for dinner, and Luca Turin for fragrances. But try as they might, they cannot do it. This no-man’s-land between chemistry and biology, physiology and perception holds too many mysteries.

Smell receptors in the nose were only identified in the 1990s, and it’s still not clear how they work, although Turin has his own controversial theory. Fortunately this hasn’t hindered perfumers and others working in fields where odour is important. They are more concerned about the relation between a smell as it is perceived and the mood that it induces in the smeller. This is why the great fragrances retain their allure. (Turin’s book is splendidly rude about the hastily concocted modern perfumes such as the “loud” Dior Poison or Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium.) “Chemicals fall into two classes: ones you already have on your shelf, and ones that it take years of work to make,” Turin explains. “So you can guess which ones get chosen. The reality is that it still takes a very good chemist and perfumer to figure out which are the important components.”

It is craft and chance together that makes good art. Last year’s Jerwood Applied Arts Prize took the Periodic Table as its theme, selecting artists doing unusual things with copper, silver, aluminium and other chemical elements, based not just on physical working of the metal but also on chemical treatments that leave some of the final result to fate. A similar spirit is evident in the ghostly traces of precious silver object conveyed solely by the marks of silver oxide tarnish rubbed off it onto a cloth produced by Cornelia Parker.

Simon Patterson’s images, on the other hand, are a delayed reaction to dull chemistry teaching at school. “The things that fascinated me about the Periodic Table were the grid and the way it was taught by rote. But I could never remember it,” he says. So Patterson has produced variations on the famous diagram in which the chemical symbol for each element kicks off a false association. Cr is not chromium but Julie Christie, Be is not beryllium but Ingmar Bergman, but then even this quasi-system is sabotaged: Ag, the symbol for silver, is not Jenny Agutter, say, or even Agatha Christie, but of course Phil Silvers. It’s a reminder that when we speak of “chemistry” we mean something human and unfathomable as well as something scientific.

The molecule sculptures of Damien Hirst likewise toy with our image of the “scientific”. They do not represent real chemicals, but instead project a general pharmaceutical aura. At the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, however, is an installation that recalls Hirst in its comic grandeur but is based on real substances found in plants. Models of DNA, caffeine and other natural substances ten billion times life size lurk within the undergrowth.

The work, called Molecules Matter, is the idea of Dr Graeme Jones, a chemical ecologist at Keele University and a National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts fellowship award holder. “I love molecules, and making molecular sculptures is a wonderful way of showing people the complex architecture of our molecular world,” says Jones. “Don’t come along for a science lesson – just enjoy these majestic structures.”

The serious underlying point is that despite the march of synthetic chemistry we still owe much to plants, which remain our source for many medicines as well as colours, flavours and fragrances. Yet much here is virgin jungle. We know only some of the chemicals in the relatively few plant species that have been investigated. Perhaps 85 per cent of the world’s plants remain unknown treasure troves of chemical delights and remedies.

Bizarrely, chemistry is sometimes portrayed as a finished project. While biology baffles with its slimy complexity and physics with its sheer strangeness, chemistry is thought to occupy the solid middle ground. Much is indeed well known, but pleasurable puzzles of our chemical senses remain to be solved.

Meanwhile, university chemistry is being squeezed, and some of Britain’s most imaginative chemists have found greater encouragement for their approach abroad. Fraser Stoddart found ways to assemble molecules not chemically but like Meccano while at the University of Birmingham. He moved to the University of California at Los Angeles in 1997 to continue development of his gadget molecules that work as switches, shuttles and motors.

Harry Kroto won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of buckminsterfullerene—a molecular form of carbon that arranges its sixty atoms of that element into a beautifully symmetrical sphere like a soccer ball. As the name he gave the molecule reveals, Kroto is also a design buff—Buckminster Fuller is the architect who pioneered geodesic domes in the 1950s – and creativity enlivens both his lectures and his research thinking. When the University of Sussex threatened to dump its chemistry course, he led protests to save it, but he has since found a position at Florida State University. Chemistry at Sussex, meanwhile, has once more been threatened and then spared the axe. At Exeter, chemistry has been cut, and the subject is under review elsewhere.

The problem is chemistry’s image, and as is usual when this is the case, people have responded by trying to rebrand it. Courses in pharmaceutics, food science or environmental sciences include much chemistry. Professor Poliakoff has introduced a programme of “green chemistry”, which recasts the science as one demanding greater human ingenuity in order to consume fewer resources and reduce environmental damage. Forensic science has seen a surge in popularity thanks to the success of television programmes like Silent Witness and CSI. Molecular gastronomy and the romance of perfumery may yet do the subject a similar favour—Hervé This reckons the phenomenon has already helped chemistry in France.

The Eeyores of British science point out that are few jobs in forensic science or in top restaurants. But this misses the point. “Chemistry should not be a vocational degree like dentistry,” says Poliakoff. The days when a chemistry qualification led to a safe job in the corporate laboratory of some provincial chemical company are long gone if they ever existed, and in any case the promise of such a life has understandably failed to excite students. It’s time to raise the game and look at the subject’s intrinsic sensuality.

Whatever happens, chemistry will not disappear. Chemicals are ever around us with all their delights and hazards. Remember Luca Turin’s granita? The first smell that hits you is not strawberry but a whiff of sulphur. Even when it touches the aesthetic heights, it seems, chemistry is still about rotten-egg stinks.

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