Monday, September 5, 2011

...and Now for Something Completely Different!

Kid on a Methionine Transporter
       Back in the spring, my brother Doug told me that 2011 is the Year of Chemistry (did you know this?) and that there was going to be a celebratory gathering at the Paul Klee Museum in Berne, Switzerland. The topic is to be "Dimensionality" and the organizer of the meeting thought that Doug's research on cells being transported through membranes would be of interest. (My brother is Professor of Chemistry at Caltech and Investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute--and I am not--so I won't pretend to know too much of what I'm talking about here!) Fortunately for me, I do know a bit about art, so Doug was looking for guidance on how he might be able to tie in Klee's work with his presentation. Thus began my unusual summer project: to create a representation of molecular structure in the style of Paul Klee.

    I began to look into the work of Paul Klee, and as luck has it, my  friend Meg is an Art Librarian and Klee Fan. She supplied me with three large volumes to search out his work, along with a fascinating book on his life (please see my blog post, Considering Klee, August 22, 2011.) The first thing I learned about Klee is that he was very open to trying different materials.  He did not particularly concern himself with using the medium that would be most acceptable to the academy. Klee was rather like a mad scientist, holed away in his lab, considering the fundamentals of nature and art.

     Doug sent me images of protein structures that have been reinterpreted for mere mortals to read.  To me, they look like ribbon curls.  These curls represent helices and resembled the diamond patterns that Klee used in his paintings.  So I made a painting using the diamond patterns on a backdrop of variegated horizontal stripes, after Klee's Uncomposed Objects in Space. I had stumbled onto two very appropriate visual elements. Doug told me that the tetrahedron (what I thought of as a diamond shape) is a key chemical concept in dimensionality since carbon atoms typically have 4 bonds in a tetrahedral arrangement that was first recognized by the famous Dutch chemist, van't Hoff in 1874. Now you know! And the backdrop turned out to be a sort of short hand for membranes.

     I kept prowling through the Klee books, looking for tetrahedrons. Child on an Open Stairway appeared. The diamond patterns were the main attraction, however, it turns out that the painting provides great scaffolding for the representation of the methionine transporter, which is the main focus of Doug's presentation to the Swiss Academy of Science's annual Congress.  The stairs are the membrane through which the child (a cell) is being transported.  Doug thought that an arrow pointing the direction through the membrane might be helpful, if not too contrived. It turns out that Klee found a lot of meaning in the arrow and used the symbol frequently in his work.  So this is how Kid on a Methionine Transporter came to be. After this exercise, the idea of having a gathering of scientists at the Klee Museum seems totally appropriate!

    It is Labor Day and the unofficial end of summer. The Summer of 2011 has brought me a bundle of new insights, thanks to my brother Doug, my friend Meg, and my new inspiration, Paul Klee! And just as a little extra added bonus, Klee means clover in German.

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