For anyone whose last foray into chemistry was being forced to memorize the periodic table of elements in high school, there's new reason to take another look at a subject you may have vowed never to revisit after final exams.
As chemical and molecular innovations — from nylon to plastic to cosmetics — transformed modern life, genomics and nanotechnology discoveries could dramatically transform the future. The Chemical Heritage Foundation's ambitious renovation and expansion of its historic headquarters is working to show the dynamic — and exciting — ways that chemistry came to be, where it's been and what might be in store.
Thanks to chemistry, Thomas Hobbes' description in the 1600s about life as "nasty, brutish and short" is no longer apt, said foundation chief financial officer Miriam Schaeffer.
"It's not that way anymore, and the reason has a lot to do with chemistry," she said. "It's a history that basically nobody's known anything about."
The foundation is putting final touches on a $20 million renovation and expansion of its 143-year-old First National Bank building in the city's historic district, an Italianate structure whose Scottish-born architect John J. McArthur Jr. also designed City Hall.
A gallery dedicated to changing exhibits is being inaugurated with "Molecules that Matter," enormous and colorful hanging structures representing 10 organic molecules that transformed modern life over the past 10 decades: from the ubiquitous (aspirin, DDT, DNA, penicillin) to the less familiar (buckminsterfullerene).
Contemporary works of art are paired with each molecule, including larger-than-life sculptures of genetically modified rats — their deformities based on real-life experiments — accompanying the molecule for DNA.
"Molecules that Matter" opened Aug. 18 and will travel in 2009 to the College of Wooster, in Ohio; Baylor University, in Texas; and Grinnell College, in Iowa. The foundation is aiming to change its temporary exhibits two to four times a year, curator Erin McLeary said.
The overhaul, a decade in the making, also includes a modern conference center and meeting spaces for up to 200 people.
But the nucleus of the project is the soaring 8,000-square-foot exhibition hall's permanent exhibit "Making Modernity," using instruments, documents and ephemera to illustrate chemistry's impact from glassmaking of the Roman Empire to tiny silicon computer chips of today. A work in progress, it opens Oct. 3.
The place is largely designed for adults who don't remember or understand much about chemistry — and that's a lot of us.
"I got a C-minus in chemistry at Bryn Mawr — and that was a gift," Schaeffer said with a laugh. "For people like me who don't understand it, it's important to realize there are brilliant people who do understand it. And their work affects all of our lives."
The expansion plans were born when chemical engineer and philanthropist Donald Othmer, who died in 1995, bequeathed $120 million to the nonprofit foundation. Othmer's $750 million fortune — largely amassed through investments in old family friend Warren Buffett's then-fledgling Berkshire Hathaway — was distributed to a handful of organizations and schools to preserve the history of chemistry and chemical technology.
"We also see it as a gathering place for people in the sciences to see where they came from, what their own specialties evolved from," Schaeffer said.
The facility's designers and curators know that typical visitors without science backgrounds would unlikely be bowled over by displays of nothing but instruments in gray hinged boxes.
So where such instruments will be displayed, their stories will be there, too — like Linus Pauling's World War II-era submarine oxygen meter. It found a postwar use measuring oxygen levels in neonatal incubators, at a time when premature infants were being permanently blinded by excess oxygen damaging their retinas.
The foundation is the repository of hundreds of other instruments, as well as correspondence, rare books, illustrations, photographs and art. There also are collections of batteries and postage stamps celebrating chemistry discoveries.
More than 100 of the instruments among the foundation's holdings came from a German plant that was shutting down and didn't know what to do with its devices, some dating to the 1930s and linked to major scientific breakthroughs. Such troves too often are simply discarded, and the foundation hopes that raising its profile will change that, said McLeary, the curator.
"We're saving things that would be otherwise completely lost," she said. "When the exhibit opens, we hope people will see CHF as a place where these things should go."