Using the tools of chemical synthesis, the ultimate in designed miniaturization can be attained while, at the same time, producing those structures and organic forms we best recognize: those that resemble humans. James Tour and Stephanie Chanteau have christened their anthropomorphic molecules NanoPutians, after the Lilliputians in Jonathan Swift’s classic, Gulliver’s Travels. Each of the ten bottles in the exhibit contains innumerable populations of NanoPutians, each with its own individual head dressing; only a few milligrams of material correspond to some 100 billion billion of these 2 nano-meter-tall anthropomorphic, carbon-based molecules. They are obtained via a separate synthesis of the top and bottom body-portions, followed by adjoining at the “waist”, with multiple syntheses converging to a whole: body-part-like descriptions such as “head”, “neck” and “legs” are used in order to perform the chemical genesis of molecules whose formulas evoke activities such as dancing, working or cooking.
Tour and Chanteau initiated their NanoPutians as an educational art and science project. Beyond the molecular-sized domain, there is no conceivable alternative upon which to tailor architectures capable of programming cohesive interactions between the individual building blocks. While synthetic chemists have long been captivated by this molecular dimension, their fascination is rarely shared by the general public, who most often view chemical structures as difficult-to-grasp abstractions formulated by complex algorithms, except when molecules resemble macroscopic objects, such as the spherical fullerenes like the C60 molecule. The NanoPutians illustrate the human desire to ascribe life-like features even to our technical creations and to metaphorically inscribe anthropocentrism into the microscopic scale of chemical synthesis or synthetic biology.
James M. Tour and Stephanie Chanteau Maya are synthetic organic chemists involved in educational outreach programs. James Tour is currently Professor of Chemistry, Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, at Rice University in Houston, Texas, specializing in nanotechnology. Stephanie Chanteau Maya received her doctorate in organic chemistry at Rice University in 2003 and currently works as an engineer for Intel Corporation.