Molecules That Matter showcases ten organic molecules that profoundly altered our world in the twentieth century. Organized by the Tang Museum in partnership with the Chemical Heritage Foundation of Philadelphia, it examines how our capacity to understand and reshape matter at the atomic and molecular levels has led to innovations in housing and clothing, fuel for our vehicles, cures for disease, and methods for easing physical and mental pain. This power has also affected the biosphere in unanticipated ways, creating significant challenges for the world today. Molecules That Matter examines these changes and aims to stimulate our awareness of the impact molecular science has on us all, individually and as a society.
The exhibition explores aspirin, isooctane, penicillin G, polyethylene, nylon 6,6, DNA, progestin, DDT, Prozac, and buckminsterfullerene (also known as buckyball) and carbon nanotubes. Each molecule is associated with one decade of the twentieth century, according to its date of discovery or period of historical impact. A board of ten chemists from higher education, industry, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation selected the molecules, with a final review by two chemistry Nobel Laureates. The board chose a balanced range of compounds, including pharmaceuticals, consumer-industrial polymers, and unique molecules such as DDT and isooctane. DNA emerged as an obvious choice. One of the great scientific stories of the last century, it will clearly become even more important as its workings are better understood in the coming years.
Molecules That Matter juxtaposes large-scale models of the ten molecules, contemporary art works by nationally recognized artists, and a range of historical objects and documents.
Fabricated specially for Molecules That Matter, the models provide the conceptual centerpieces of the exhibition, revealing each molecule’s three-dimensional structure and capturing its scientific integrity. Their scale suggests that although the actual molecules are too small to see, their impact is enormous.
Artists in the exhibition represent a wide range of media and approaches, and include Thomas Asmuth, Susie Brandt, Chrissy Conant, Tony Cragg, Bryan Crockett, Kara Daving, Robert Dawson, Melissa Gwyn, Michael Oatman, Roxy Paine, Dan Peterman, Alexis Rockman, Ed Ruscha, Jean Shin, and Fred Tomaselli.
We encourage visitors to approach Molecules That Matter as a speculative, wide-ranging starting point, not a conclusive or comprehensive view. Indeed, the range of topics and histories invoked in the exhibition is vast, and in creating it we selected objects with a sense of play as well as historical impact. Molecules That Matter, together with an accompanying website and catalogue ultimately proposes that the scientific understanding of our world at the molecular level continues to recast our notions of human identity: transforming our expectations for human health and longevity, radically changing the material conditions of our lives, and revolutionizing our relationship to nature on a scale unimagined by previous generations.
Dr. Raymond J. Giguere
Class of 1962 Term Professor of Chemistry
John S. Weber Tang Museum’s Dayton Director