The art of chemistry

Sculptors are drawn to their aesthetics, and chefs love the way they tease our senses. Can we really be talking about molecules? Hugh Aldersey-Williams reports

Here's a seasonal experiment for you: put some strawberries and ice in a blender and whizz it to a granita-like crush. After 10 seconds, lift the lid and take a sniff. What will it smell like? Not what you might expect. But let's leave that revelation to the end of this article.

This trick comes from a new book, The Secret of Scent by Luca Turin, a fragrance chemist. Turin uses charming synaesthetic similes to describe different aromas and is entertaining about the surprises that our chemical senses throw at us. But Turin is only the latest in a line of people who are realising that chemistry has its aesthetic side. Creative personalities from artists to chefs have already begun to use chemistry to raise their work to new heights.

The scientific secrets of taste were originally revealed by Hervé This, the chemist pioneer of "molecular gastronomy", the scientific trend that is inspiring chefs at the world's top restaurants. At El Bulli near Barcelona, Ferran Adria is a disciple, as is Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire. Blumenthal famously creates bacon and egg ice cream, compares molecular structures to create unexpected flavour combinations such as white chocolate and caviar, and even squirts green tea and lime mousses into bowls of liquid nitrogen - when served on to the diner's tongue, the mousse vanishes into a puff of vapour, leaving nothing but flavour.

Artists such as Damien Hirst and Simon Patterson are also making use of chemistry. For them it is the visual language of the subject that excites - the colourful, childlike shapes of molecular models or the graphic icon of the periodic table. It all adds up to an overwhelming conclusion: molecules, chemicals, atoms - they are part of the psyche of 21st-century Britain. But it also begs a question: why isn't this trend happening in our universities too?

On an academic level, 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 in 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 form of carbon that arranges its 60 atoms into a beautifully symmetrical sphere like a football.

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. 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.

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 under the kitchen sink. Now they're on the restaurant table and in the boudoir.

The problem on the academic level 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. Martyn Poliakoff, professor of chemistry at Nottingham University, has introduced a programme of "green chemistry", which recasts the science as one demanding greater human ingenuity in order to reduce environmental damage. Forensic science has seen a surge in popularity thanks to the success of television programmes such as Silent Witness and CSI. Molecular gastronomy and the romance of perfumery may yet do the subject a similar favour.

The Eeyores of British science point out that there 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 Professor Poliakoff. The days when a chemistry qualification led to a safe job in the corporate laboratory 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 look at the subject's intrinsic sensuality.

One academic who is in touch with the new approach is Dr Graeme Jones, a chemical ecologist at Keele University and a holder of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts fellowship award. While the molecule sculptures of Damien Hirst toy with our image of the "scientific", they do not represent real chemicals. At the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Dr Jones' installation recalls Hirst in its comic grandeur but is based on real substances found in plants. Models of DNA, caffeine and other natural substances 10 billion times life size lurk in the undergrowth. His work is called Molecules Matter. "I love molecules, and making molecular sculptures is a great way of showing people the complex architecture of our molecular world," says Jones.

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 are unknown treasure troves of chemical delights and remedies.

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 Professor Poliakoff. "Artists need chemicals just as much as scientists."

Newton may have unweaved the rainbow for Keats. Hervé This may seek to do the same for food, and Luca Turin for fragrances. But try as they might, they cannot do it. The no-man's-land between chemistry and biology, physiology and perception holds too many mysteries. Yet it is precisely these mysteries that make the emerging aesthetic fields within chemistry so much more enticing than the old ones.

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. 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. "Chemicals fall into two classes: ones you already have on your shelf, and ones that it take years of work to make," Turin says. "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."

Images by the artist Simon Patterson are a delayed reaction to dull school chemistry. "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 diagram in which the chemical symbols kick off a false associations. Cr is not chromium but Julie Christie, Be is not beryllium but Ingmar Bergman. Even this quasi-system is sabotaged: Ag, the symbol for silver, is not Jenny Agutter, say, 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.

Bizarrely, chemistry is sometimes portrayed as a finished project. While biology baffles with its slimy complexity, and physics with its strangeness, chemistry occupies the solid middle ground.

Whatever happens, chemistry will not disappear. Chemicals are ever around us. Remember Turin's granita? The first smell that hits you is sulphur. Rotten eggs as sexy science? Well, perhaps not. But the movement to take molecules to the masses is certainly underway.

Luca Turin's The Secret of Scent is published by Faber, £12.99


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