Upend atom!

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ONE of the exhibits at London’s Science Museum is a load of old balls. Stroll through the ground floor galleries, go up a staircase to the right, and there you will find it: in a long glass case, together with a manually operated fire engine and a digger built for open-cast mining.

The display tells the story of the making of the modern world, and this particular exhibit represents one of its most revolutionary developments. It is a model built by chemist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin of the penicillin molecule, the first antibiotic to be discovered. The multicoloured balls joined with little sticks represent the 3D arrangement of atoms inside the molecule – a secret that, once uncovered, enabled us to mass produce the drug and save millions of lives.

It’s easy to see how the model might be a bit outdated in a world where supercomputers can work out the configuration of atoms with fine precision. But it’s not just the model itself that belongs in a museum. Our entire conception of molecules is increasingly coming to seem like a period piece. Move beyond this crude view of little balls and sticks, and it could shift chemistry up a gear, opening a path to discovering new types of drugs and smarter, faster ways to make the materials that the world depends on.

To understand the importance of manipulating molecules, you need only look at the plastic casing of your smartphone, or the flecks of toothpaste on your polyester shirt. There is hardly an area of modern life that doesn’t rely on the elegant craft of stitching simple molecules into newer and more interesting ones. But the story of penicillin really illustrates its power…

 

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Picture credit: The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum