Molecular Aesthetics: How Chemistry and Art are Connected

“There’s a sudden experience of delight that you feel when you witness something that is beautiful,” says Rosendo Villafuerte-Vega ’16. He remembers the first time he learned about how water molecules arrange themselves in the solid phase. “It was simply amazing how these minuscule entities can beautifully rearrange themselves—from the common household ice cube to the delicate snowflake.”

Villafuerte-Vega majored in Chemistry, but he also explored the humanities during his college career and loved the variety of disciplines he got to study through Immaculata’s liberal arts curriculum. He especially enjoyed the Honors Aesthetics course taught by Sister Judith Parsons, IHM, Ph.D., associate professor of Philosophy.

Under the mentorship of Sister Judith, Villafuerte-Vega conducted research and developed a poster titled “Molecular Aesthetics: Exploring the Beauty of Visual Representations in Chemistry.” He presented this research in April both at Immaculata’s Posters Under the Dome event and at an undergraduate research event held at the state capitol building in Harrisburg, PA.

“The chemist attempts to construct representations of molecules in order to gain a better insight into their chemical nature,” Villafuerte-Vega writes in his poster. Scientists don’t favor any one molecular model; instead, many representations portray different aspects of molecules.

Villafuerte-Vega sees beauty both in “the structure inherent in chemicals” and also in “the human mind’s capacity to employ skill and imagination” in visualizing invisible molecules. The molecule he finds most beautiful is the Buckminsterfullerene, a collection of 60 carbon atoms named after Buckminster Fuller, the architect who designed geodesic domes. “The molecule consists of numerous pentagons and hexagons that come together to form a structure that closely resembles a soccer ball,” Villafuerte-Vega says.

The scientists who discovered the Buckminsterfullerene, or “buckyball,” as it is sometimes called, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996. The prize committee noted that “for chemists, the proposed structure was uniquely beautiful and satisfying.”

“Chemists’ appreciation of the beauty of molecules permits them to uncover the secrets of the molecular world,” Villafuerte-Vega says in his poster. The Buckminsterfullerene and its family of molecules, called fullerenes, are not only aesthetically appealing. Because of their hollow geometric structure, they are also uniquely stable and can act as cages to store or transport other chemicals. Discovering fullerenes allowed chemists to pursue new lines of inquiry in chemistry, leading to innovations and much future research potential in the fields of nanotechnology, electronics, medicine, materials science, and mechanics.

“In chemistry,” Villafuerte-Vega says, “you often have to go through many steps in order to synthesize a particular compound of interest. I can tell you that once you synthesize a compound that is so difficult to make, and you are determined to make it, then you cannot help but to think that what you made is beautiful and, in a sense, art.” He remembers the frustration of having to stay in Immaculata’s lab for hours, trying procedures again and again, “but it was worth waiting to create something from the labor of your own hands!” he said.

Curiosity and a sense of awe pervade Villafuerte-Vega’s study of chemistry. “I wanted to know why atoms arranged themselves to form the molecules that I find beautiful. In a way, it not only enhanced my understanding of chemistry, but it also made me re-discover my passion for the field.”

Author: aduncan

Share This Post On