Knitting Needles, Balls of Yarn and the First Molecular Model

Recently, while reading a knitting blog I discovered that 2011 is, apparently, the International Year of Chemistry. In 1883 a Scottish chemist created the first “ball-and-stick” model of a molecule using knitting needles and balls of yarn. This initial ball-and-stick molecule represents the structure of sodium chloride and is constructed of knitting needles, representing the bonds, and alternating balls of blue and red yarn, representing the atoms of sodium and chloride. It’s being displayed as part of the International Year of Chemistry 2011 activities.

The chemist who created this model was Alexander Crum Brown, distinguished chemistry and professor at the University of Edinburgh, and one of his particular interests was the arrangements of atoms in molecules and the depiction of these structures. Those of us who spent countless hours poring our organic chemistry books and molecular model sets trying to understand nucleophilic attacks and SN1 and SN2 reactions have Alexander Crum Brown to thank. Those students who now use computer 3D modeling programs to accomplish the same studies (without the delight of chasing down the last nitrogen atom that has rolled off the desk and under the dresser) are also indebted to Dr. Brown.

In fact, even Watson and Crick are deeply in debt to Dr. Brown, for without his work to develop ball-and-stick modeling of chemical structures, they would not have been able to combine their knowledge of Chargaff’s rules and Franklin’s X-ray crystallography structures to propose their molecular model of the B form of DNA.

Alexander Crum Brown, reknown chemist and knitter who created the first ball-and-stick molecular model using knitting needles and balls of yarn.

That a chemist from Scotland, the land of sheep, wool and Fair Isle Knitting, would have an deep-seeded interest in knots and knitting is not surprising. But it is a delightful find for this scientist knitter to see that he combined his knitting talents with his love of chemistry to do something that has become such a foundation of chemistry today—create a ball-and-stick molecular model. Who knew that knitting could drive scientific discovery and teaching?

And it has led me to the International Year of Chemistry web site, which itself is full of wonderful activities for educators and chemistry researchers, things to do, lectures and meetings to attend in virtually every country around the world. Perhaps some of the many scientific knitters around will decide to participate by knitting the periodic table of the elements or just creating charts for knitting a favorite molecule. Or perhaps knitting chemistry teachers will have their students enter the “A World without Polymers” contest.

Meanwhile I think I may work on creating a hat with one of ChemKnits pain-relief designs. I wonder how they work in knitted form…

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Michele Arduengo

Senior Content Developer / Social Media Lead at Promega Corporation
Michele earned her B.A. in biology at Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, and her PhD through the BCDB Program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Michele manages the Promega Connections blog. She enjoys leisure reading, writing creative nonfiction and knitting, and the occasional cross-country skiing jaunt.

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