Molecular aesthetics

Peter Weibel and Ljiljana Fruk (eds)
ZKM-Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe/MIT Press
2013 | 400pp | £37.95
ISBN 9780262018784
Reviewed by Philip Ball
A conference held in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 2011 was perhaps the first to address the topic of molecular aesthetics. This collection of articles and imagery stemming from that meeting suggests it was an event in equal measure stimulating, entertaining and perplexing.
The editors Peter Weibel and Ljiljana Fruk have taken the wise decision to not simply put together a collection of papers from the meeting, but rather, to augment the contributions with a wide collection of reprints on the topic, along with a very generous selection of images of related artworks. The result is an engrossing 500-page digest which will surely contain something for everyone. 
Roald Hoffmann characteristically puts the issue in a nutshell: ‘By virtue of not being comfortable in the official literature, aesthetic judgements in chemistry, largely oral, acquire the character of folk literature.’ However, the question of whether this is the way things must be or whether this situation should be resisted is not quite addressed here.
The book is nothing if not diverse, which means that the quality is bound to fluctuate. The paranoid guerrilla rantings of the Critical Art Ensemble nor the opaque semiotic posturing of Eric Allie offer few useful insights. Kenneth Snelson’s model of electronic structure is decidedly ‘outsider science’. Some of the artworks, although striking, bear little on the issue of molecular aesthetics. But I’m not complaining – such inclusiveness adds to the richness of the stew.
My own view is much in accord with that advanced here by Joachim Schummer: if we really want to talk about molecular aesthetics then we must cease warbling about molecules that are ‘beautiful’ (meaning pleasing) because of their symmetry and instead conduct a serious investigation of what the term could mean – what criteria we should use for thinking about the ways we represent chemistry and molecules visually, conceptually and sensorially, and about the delight we find in them. This book is a great beginning to that endeavour.
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