Science Museum News

“Molecular Playground” Exhibit Opens at Springfield Science Museum

Springfield Science Museum

October 7, 2011

As a way of making science fun and easier to understand, the Springfield Science Museum has partnered with the University of Massachusetts Amherst to install a “molecular playground” at the museum. The interactive display introduces visitors to the beauty of chemicals and molecular structure.

Craig Martin, head of the chemistry department at UMass Amherst, explained that the playground is a colorful, interactive display of biologically significant molecules. Images are projected onto a six- by nine-foot wall area by a shadow-sensing infrared camera mounted behind viewers. When a person reaches out toward a glucose molecule, for example, it turns gracefully or re-sizes, allowing a large-scale, 3-D view of its structure and close-up details of its chemical make-up.

“Molecules are beautiful,” said Martin. “We want to show their 3-D structure in a way that feels as much like art as possible while remaining true to the underlying chemistry, so people develop an appreciation for these fascinating structures. Scientists are often awed by the symmetry and beauty of molecular structures, but we rarely are able to communicate that appreciation to non scientists.”

Viewers will be able to play with and explore the shapes and visual beauty of molecules such as acetophenone (a common fragrance base) and the influenza vaccine, plus some of their binding-site proteins in the brain and bloodstream. In the future Martin and colleagues plan to add such common compounds as caffeine, vitamin D, hemoglobin, aspirin and ibuprofen.

With the collaboration of UMass Amherst computer science graduate student Adam Williams and emeritus professors Allen Hanson and Eric Martz, Martin brought the first molecular playground to the lobby of the campus’s new Integrated Sciences Building in 2009, where he says it has had an “overwhelmingly positive reception.” The Molecular Playground was developed by the University of Massachusetts Amherst with funding from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Special Grant Program in the Chemical Sciences.

Martin and colleagues are currently creating two more molecular playgrounds, at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and at a research institute on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Ultimately the goal is to make it easy for high schools, community colleges and other institutions to install their own interactive playgrounds.

A demonstration of the Molecular Playground is available at: www.molecularplayground.org.

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