On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

A Beautiful World: Molecules, the architecture of everything

Share story

A book cover and the author, a white man with glasses and a beard
Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything by Theodore Gray
Courtesy of the author

Everything in the physical world is made of elements from the periodic table. Those elements combine with one another in endless amalgamations to create a vast array of molecules, which are the architecture, the building blocks, of everything around you.

Science writer Theodore Gray along with photographer Nick Mann explores this grand story in his book, “Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything.”

He says to explain molecules, you really have to start with elements and atoms. “The Greeks were right. All matter is made of tiny, tiny little particles. We call them atoms. There are many different kinds. And the wonderful thing about atoms is that they can connect to each other. They can form bonds between each other. So, for example, if you take one atom called an oxygen atom and two atoms called hydrogen atoms and you connect them together, both hydrogens are connected to the oxygen with a chemical bond between them. That's called water.”

Gray goes on to explore the ocean of materials molecules can create, including sugar and salt; rocks and sand; painkillers, perfumes and porcupines; cars, colors, and controversial compounds. Everything in our world is made of molecules.

“The entire richness of the world that we live in, all the material stuff, all the different kinds of things that we have, different materials, different foods, different living things, everything. It's all possible because of the many different ways in which elements can be connected to each other to form molecules. You know, depending on how you hook them up, you get anything from a poison gas to a tasty, delicious asparagus. They’re all molecules.”

Gray shows us molecules as we've never seen them before, with vivid descriptions and intricate images of molecule structures. He uses the example of a molecular machine that you might be wearing: cotton.

“Cotton is cellulose fiber, cellulose is a long chain molecule,” he says. “You get a bunch of these long, thin molecules twisted around each other and then woven together in a particular complicated structure, which gives that fiber its particular physical characteristics based on the nanoscale molecular scale shape of the fiber that it's building. Every plant has a different protein highway that it builds, whether it's a tree, or a grass leaf, or a cotton fiber, or whatever. It's just inconceivable to me how wonderful that mechanism is to build something on a molecular scale. And we're far away from being able to build anything like that.”

His fascination with the mysteries of the molecular world is contagious. One of the molecules Gray admires most is DNA.

“DNA is a molecule,” he says. “The hereditary molecule that builds all living things. The machinery, the intricacy of the molecular machinery that makes DNA do its thing. Just as mind-blowing is its complexity and its intricacy. The world is full of examples of molecular machinery that’s just so much more sophisticated than anything we've been able to build at that scale. We have machines of equal complexity, but they're like a billion times bigger, because we're very clumsy in building things.

When we see illustrations of molecules in textbooks, they’re usually flat, lifeless, stick-figure things, but in reality molecules are three-dimensional entities that are always moving. Sound is created when it travels through the vibration of molecules. For instance, when a violin string vibrates, it causes air molecules to move. The sound travels in waves through air molecules.

Gray built an app as a companion for his book that allows you seemingly to touch and play with molecules and see how they react.

“You can grab the molecules or grab the atoms,” he says. “You can touch individual atoms and pull on them with your finger. And it's showing you in sort of as realistic as possible a way how the molecule would actually respond if you did that. It bends, it flexes. You can take groups that are joined with a single bond that is able to rotate. You can spin them and you can see how they spin and then they slow down. They bump off each other, they repel each other because they're by electrostatic repulsion. They're very live, active things. I really think that I learned more about the sort of physical reality of molecules in the first 10 minutes of playing with that app than in years of studying chemistry in the traditional way of looking at flat diagrams.”