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Chemistry-Themed Piano Synthesizes Science and Art

CAS professor and students participate in Street Pianos Boston 2016

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Pedestrians around Boston or Cambridge in fall 2016 might spot something a little whimsical on their walks. Some 60 painted pianos, all decorated by different local artists and groups, have taken up residence on the streets. They sport flowers and props or delicate, swirling designs or have patterns reminiscent of Kandinsky or Picasso. One piano stands out for its particularly scientific aesthetic. Painted robin’s-egg blue and covered with the chemical structures for dozens of different molecules, the piano makes art out of a subject traditionally seen as obtuse and intimidating.

The chemistry-themed piano, created by BU’s Beeler Research Group, is part of Street Pianos Boston 2016, produced by the Celebrity Series of Boston. The project, which last visited Boston in 2013, is a branch of a worldwide street piano art installation started by British artist Luke Jerram in 2008. Each piano bears the phrase “Play Me, I’m Yours,” inviting all who pass to make a little music.

Research group head Aaron Beeler, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of chemistry, grew interested in the Street Pianos project when he saw one of the instruments outside of his office building three years ago. “I could look at it out my window, and I was always impressed,” he says. “Someone was always playing it. I guess it left a mark.” When he learned that the installation was returning, Beeler decided to apply and was excited about being selected.

“Science is such a significant part of Boston,” he says, and the street piano project seemed like a good way to represent this.

Original artist Jerram designed the Play Me, I’m Yours installation not only to give everyone access to a piano, but also to allow people to interact with their environment, meet others, and share community. The Beeler Group’s street piano goes a step further and aims to make chemistry appealing to everyone, regardless of scientific background.

Alexis Courtney-Young (GRS’18), left, and Gabrielle Fleming (GRS’19) sit with their advisor Aaron Beeler at the piano that the group created for Street Pianos Boston 2016

Courtney-Young and Fleming with their advisor, Aaron Beeler, at the piano the group created for Street Pianos Boston 2016. The piano is being exhibited at the Museum of Science, Boston, from September 23 through October 10, 2016.

“Talking about my work with nonchemists is challenging, but having a visual piece where people can see that there are molecules everywhere makes it accessible,” says Beeler lab third-year graduate student Gabrielle Fleming (GRS’19), one of the two students who painted most of the piano. She and fellow artist Alexis Courtney-Young (GRS’18) stress that connecting chemistry with daily life is one of the goals with their piano.

Courtney-Young painted a small bee on top of the piano to illustrate ethyl phenylacetate, the molecule that gives honey its aroma. “Everything is made up of chemicals,” she says, indicating the other food molecules she painted. “People don’t want to think about that,” Fleming adds. “It has a negative connotation.” But they hope that the project will help turn that attitude around.

The students decorated the top of the piano with the chemical structures of molecules submitted by friends, students, family, and the public to the Beeler Research Group website. Many of the molecules might be familiar to science students—for instance, dopamine and glucose—but many more sound familiar outside the lab. Caffeine was a popular submission, as was capsaicin, which makes peppers spicy. Strontium carbonate, used in red fireworks, and eucalyptol, found in eucalyptus leaves, are lesser known, but also made it onto the piano. The students included each molecule’s name and a short description of its purpose, so the piano teaches as well as delights.

Chemical structures of molecules and tiny illustrations that explain their functions decorate the Beeler Research Group piano at the Museum of Science, Boston. The piano, part of the project Street Pianos Boston 2016, is being exhibited from September 23, 2016, through October 10.

Chemical structures of molecules and tiny illustrations explaining their functions decorate the Beeler Research Group piano at the Museum of Science, Boston.

According to Courtney-Young, nonchemists were very excited to send molecule submissions. “They didn’t know what the molecules were, but they would say, ‘I want the molecule found in pumpkins.’” (It’s cis-3-hexenol, which gives pumpkins their characteristic smell.)

The piano went on display at the Museum of Science, Boston, on September 23 and will remain there until October 10. It is outside in the small plaza to the right of the museum lobby, close to the ticket kiosk for the Boston Duck Tours.

Even before noon on a weekday, the piano attracts a lot of attention. Most visitors who see the piano come over to take a look and pick out a few notes. Some plunk their children down on the bench, painted with the periodic table, and film them playing little melodies. Others sit down themselves for passionate, if sometimes self-conscious, renditions of Beethoven’s Für Elise and the ever-popular “Heart and Soul.”

One young man makes a beeline to the piano from the sidewalk. “This is so cool,” he says, sitting down to play. His friends circle the instrument, examining the painted molecules with exclamations of interest.

“We accomplished what we set out to do,” says Beeler.

1 Comments

One Comment on Chemistry-Themed Piano Synthesizes Science and Art

  • David on 08.13.2018 at 3:34 am

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