Blogging (and Molecules) to the MAX!

by Michael Mullaney on November 19, 2010

Molecules to the MAX! continues to educate and entertain audiences around the country. The 3-D version premiered last month across the Hudson River at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady. The film—created and made right here at Rensselaer—is a family-friendly affair, but its roots lie in deep, rich science and technology.

The movie’s backgrounds are sourced from molecular simulations conducted by Professor Shekhar Garde and his students. This raw data—some of which was so vast it required Rensselaer’s supercomputing center to calculate—was delivered to the digital artists at Nanotoon, who built custom algorithms for representing this data in a way that was visually arresting and apt for the big screen. This was no easy task. Video games and Hollywood (not to mention Rensselaer professors and grad students) often use video capture to create digital characters with ultra-realistic movements and mannerisms—think Avatar, The Matrix, Iron Man, or any other big-budget sci-fi blockbuster. The Molecularium team successfully applied this same method to molecules, which is truly amazing.

But, years before movie premieres and “lights, camera, action,” Molecularium was a just kernel of an idea in the brilliant mind of Professor Linda Schadler. She recently wrote an excellent piece for Proctors and the Daily Gazette in Schenectady exploring how the Molecularium Project was born, and the development of the concept and its two movies, Riding Snowflakes and Molecules to the MAX!

Here are some excerpts from Schadler’s post:

In 2000, I was charged with developing a K-12 outreach program for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Nanotechnology Center. I decided that perhaps an interaction with a museum would be the most effective way to get out our message—which is that everything is made of atoms and molecules, and the world of atoms and molecules is both fascinating and critical to our understanding of global warming, clean water, a sustainable planet, energy, health, and food safety.

If everyone understood more about atoms and molecules, I’m convinced that we would make better public policy decisions. In addition, we need more students to enter the fields of science and engineering, and we were hoping to catch their imaginations with our program.

So I went to the local children’s museum, now called the Children’s Museum of Science and Technology in the Rensselaer Technology Park, North Greenbush, and met with the director. Something clicked when the conversation took an astronomical turn and the director showed me a model of the planetarium that was slated to be built at the museum. It was at that point that the idea for using the planetarium as a venue to teach about atoms and molecules just popped into my head. Once I had the vision, I couldn’t let it go. I kept imagining a trip down into the amazing world of atoms and molecules and immersing the audience in that world.

Schadler said two of her Rensselaer colleagues, Garde, and Richard Siegel, immediately took to the project, and the trio formed a team. They raised funds from the National Science Foundation to make a pilot show, and Garde coined the term Molecularium—literally a planetarium show about molecules.

She goes on:

Another essential component was a decision I made early on about which artists to work with. A Rensselaer undergraduate was working at the children’s museum and he convinced me to work with a free-lance director instead of working with a large company. He was absolutely right. That free-lance director was Owen Bush who hired a talented leadership team to create the show. He hired Kurt Przybilla as writer/producer and Chris Harvey as art director and together they assembled a remarkable team of artists and computer animators to bring the adventures of the Molecularium to life.

OK, now imagine three engineers sitting down with three artists and trying to make a digital movie. Hmmmm…

As you probably guessed, it was both fantastic and challenging as we taught each other science, art, the planetarium film business, and how egos work in each of our cultures. However, the results were tremendous. When the audience is immersed in the atomic world, they travel with atomic characters with “interesting” personalities who sing songs at the drop of a hat, and are seeing images created by Shekhar Garde’s molecular dynamics simulations, that have been imported into the animation software. The audience is seeing as close to real science about the world of atoms and molecules as is possible in this venue.

In 2005, our efforts paid off with the release of the first Molecularium show, Riding Snowflakes. The show, formatted for digital domes, such as planetariums, garnered much acclaim. It has now been translated into Korean and Arabic, and is showing all over the world including at the Children’s Museum of Science and Technology. Riding Snowflakes is aimed at children in grades K-5, but teaches everyone—adults and kids alike— three key concepts:

• Everything is made of atoms and molecules (even you!)
• There are three states of matter (solids slow, liquids flow, gas is fast)
• Polymers are very long chains molecules.

The second movie, Molecules to the MAX!, is enjoying similar success and is focused on the same three key learning points.

Some grist for the mill:

Teachers and parents looking for more information on how and where to see Molecules to the MAX! 3-D at Proctors, including info about showings and field trips, click here.

Also, check out this excellent news story: