Jane Nisselson, Resident Scholar

Jane Nisselson (left) with Peter and Judy Freeman

People have sometimes stated that Pauling’s model of the alpha-helix or his incorrect model for DNA gave us the idea that DNA was a helix. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Helices were in the air, and you would have to be either obtuse or very obstinate not to think along helical lines. What Pauling did show us was that exact and careful model building could embody constraints that the final answer had in any case to satisfy. Sometimes this could lead to the correct structure, using only a minimum of the direct experimental evidence.

-Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (1988)

Documentary filmmaker Jane Nisselson is the most recent of our Resident Scholars to present work conducted in Special Collections. Nisselson, founder of the film and design studio Virtual Beauty, has used her residency in the Oregon State University Libraries to build the foundation of a film project documenting the importance of scientific model making to researchers past, present and future.

According to Nisselson, the project – a feature-length film which she hopes to have completed in two years – is not meant to be a scientific history of model-making, per se. Rather, she hopes for the documentary to answer two primary questions: 1) Is science a visual process as opposed to a purely mathematical pursuit? 2) Looking forward, how might molecular modeling evolve as new molecules are designed for use in all types of endeavors, both commercial and academic.

Pastel drawing of Ethylene by Roger Hayward. 1964.

Nisselson was first exposed to Linus Pauling’s model-making through a colleague, who brought her attention to Roger Hayward‘s pastel drawings of molecules published in The Architecture of Molecules, a text co-authored with Pauling. From there, Nisselson learned of the extensive model collection housed in the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers. Because he was both a terrific popular communicator as well as a prolific builder of models, Pauling, in Nisselson’s estimation, is “a perfect guide into chemistry.”

After laboriously poring over mounds of manuscripts and calculations related to Pauling’s structural chemistry, (as well as his correspondence with, among others, sculptor and mobile artist Alexander Calder) Nisselson enlisted the assistance of both a high-definition videographer as well as a still photographer to capture artistic images of Pauling’s finished models.

The results are breathtaking. Filmed in rotation, one is able to clearly see the often-complex symmetries inherent to many of the constructions. “Each model,” in Nisselson’s words, ” is a whole world to visually explore.” On the same token, the models also serve, of course, as representations which allow scientists to better understand observed behaviors.  Viewed in these terms, the models are equal parts research tool, communicative device and aesthetic achievement.

A portion of the Pauling model collection, OSU Libraries Special Collections.

Nisselson’s work on Linus Pauling is just the first step in what promises to be a lengthy and fascinating process. Her ultimate ambition for the completed film is to present a visual survey of the molecule in twelve chapters, featuring segments on, among other topics, fragrance systems, drug design and the emerging discipline of molecular gastronomy.  In the end, it is hoped that the film will not only walk its audience through the popular iconography of the molecule  as it has developed over time, but also spark interest in complex scientific topics by explaining chemical research in terms of creative endeavor.

The OSU Libraries Special Collections Resident Scholar Program is generously supported by the Peter and Judith Freeman Fund.  Past recipients have included Dr. Burtron Davis of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research, Toshihiro Higuchi of Georgetown University and Mina Carson, professor of history at Oregon State University.