Feature Stories

Molecular Playground

Springfield Science Museum features a UMass-developed Molecular Playground
  • UMass Amherst Professor Craig T. Martin and The Molecular Playground

"I want to show that molecules come in all sizes and flavors and have all sorts of functions." —Craig T. Martin

To make science fun and easier to understand, the Springfield (Mass.) Science Museum has partnered with UMass Amherst in installing a Molecular Playground, a campus-designed interactive display that introduces visitors to the beauty of molecular structures. One after another it projects representations of molecules onto a 6-by-9-foot gray screen by a shadow-sensing infrared camera mounted behind viewers. When a viewer reaches out toward an image it turns gracefully or resizes, allowing a large-scale 3-D view of that molecule and close-up details of its chemical makeup.

The Molecular Playgrounds are the brainchild of Professor Craig T. Martin, head of UMass Amherst’s Department of Chemistry. He sees them as a means of quietly seducing the lay public with chemistry’s hidden charms.

“Many people appreciate the beauty of a flower or a swan,” he says, “but aren’t aware of the symmetry and beauty of their molecular bases. And scientists, awed as they may be by these structures, can rarely communicate that appreciation to nonscientists. We want the Molecular Playground to attract and entertain a broad audience while visually exposing them to some of the concepts that underlie molecular structures at all levels.”

Martin further hopes that the installation will help the general public appreciate the profound relevance of chemistry to our everyday lives and counter the widespread bias that sees chemicals only as toxins or pollutants. “In choosing which molecules to project,” he says, “I want to convey that, yes, DDT is a chemical, but so is hemoglobin. It’s got a really big molecular structure, but it’s a naturally produced chemical. I want to show that molecules come in all sizes and flavors and have all sorts of functions.”

The first Molecular Playground was installed in the lobby of the campus’s Integrated Science Building, and others are planned for St. Olaf College in Minnesota and a structural biology institute in Okinawa, Japan. The public has taken to them with everything from quiet fascination to pure playfulness. One boy was caught on video tossing his gloves skyward to see how they’d jog the images. Martin is comfortable with that: “If it gets him excited,” he says, “that’s great.”