Salvador Dali has always been one of my favourite artists. From an early age I was captivated by his dreamscapes, dual imagery, and the sense of space he is able to convey in his often-desolate landscapes. In a similar vein, I have always been captivated by the dimensionality of chemistry. I love the geometries, the shapes, and the imagery of the interactions we try to capture as scientists to bring sense to the chemical reactions and interactions that drive every aspect of our daily lives.
One afternoon, while scrolling through some of Dali’s paintings online the worlds of art and chemistry collided. I had been taking a close look at the “Temptation of St Anthony”, which depicts a naked St Anthony brandishing a cross to ward off a parade of spindle-legged elephants, each carrying symbolic elements of temptation. For some reason I focused on the impossibility of the legs of the elephants, which suddenly made me think of prostaglandins. My chemical brain took over, and I realized that if the elephants were prostaglandins, then surely St Anthony would have to be a receptor of some kind. I decided at that moment to have my first ever attempt at producing a chemistry themed homage to one of my favourite artists.
As mentioned above, the sense of space Dali creates in his dreamy landscapes is particularly interesting to me, and probably the hardest thing to replicate. So, I had to draw big – or at least as big as possible on a 24 inch drawing tablet. The actual image size is 82 x 60 cm at 600 DPI and this allowed me to zoom right in without pixilation and at least gave a perception vastness in the image while it was being drawn. Once the clouds and the background were more or less complete, I took a break and did some thinking about what molecules to put in.
After some quick research, I settled on the Prostaglandin F receptor to play the role of St Anthony. Whilst this receptor has the highest affinity for prostaglandin F2a, it is also activated to a lesser extent by prostaglandins D2 and E2, all of which appear as “elephants” in the image. Also appearing as the last elephant in the series is a prostaglandin “analogue” – a purely fictional analogue with a tower on its back. It was important to ensure this molecule was represented differently from the natural activators because it raises the question as to why it is different. The implication of the image appearing with a human construct on its back, is that this is possibly a non-natural activator of the receptor. This molecule has just come from the clouds, where the flare of a refinery and large-scale process equipment can be seen, adding to the suggestion that this molecule is somehow not natural, but a synthetic analogue.
In setting up this image, the intent was to show a continuum between the natural world (receptor and natural ligands) to the synthetic world. If there is an underlying message here, I guess it is that that chemists provide ingenuity and skill to produce molecules that can interact with the natural world around us. On reflection, it would be nice to think that one day, the refineries in the clouds could be replaced in some way as we focus on the role that alternative feedstocks, new technologies and cleaner energy will have in shaping the future of the chemicals industry.