Field of Science

What makes a molecule beautiful?

I just finished a piece for the March issue of Nature Chemistry on what (in my mind) make a molecule beautiful. I will admit a preference for sparer, less baroque structures. (If you want to know more about my molecular aesthetic, you'll have to wait for the piece to appear!). In the meantime there is an article in this month's Nature Chemistry with the intriguing title "Quantifying the Chemical Beauty of Drugs" [Bickerton et al. Nature Chem. 4, 93-97 (2012), full text is free]. It's not so much beauty in the abstract these chemists are trying to quantitatively capture, but desirability. How attractive is this molecule as a target for drug development? Would a chemist be willing to surrender time and bench space to the synthesis of this molecule?

The model takes as its inspiration Lipinski's rule of 5. If most or all of Lipinski's five characteristics are present, a molecule has a good chance of being a viable candidate for an oral drug [Lipinkski et al. Adv. Drug Dev. Rev. 23 3-25 (1997)]. The goal is to develop an expert model system, one that mimics (or improves on) a chemist's intuition about what makes for a good drug.

Earlier work had suggested that chemical fashion sense is drifting toward more baroque structures for their drugs, despite various rule sets that suggest that bloated molecules are less likely to survive to clinical trials. Chemists apparently like their molecules "tractable" (which would seem to mitigate against molecular overelaboration?), synthetically and otherwise! Molecular docility is desirable.

For a somewhat darker take on chemical intuition and seat of the pants drug design read "Chemists in the Shadows" by Adam Piore in March's Discover Magazine. The article focuses on underground chemists who are developing new recreational pharmaceuticals that skirt current drug laws (steroids for athletes, and rave drugs). The conceptual framework used by some of these chemists would be familiar to any medicinal chemist (particularly in the early days, before QSAR).


  1. I look forward to reading your article in Nature Chemistry. In the meantime, a molecule that seems beautiful to me is C60, a.k.a. buckyball. It is an intricate pattern of 5- and 6-member rings, and the overall structure has nice symmetry.

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  4. Sorry for the prior posts – but I am very glad you wrote this - I have found many a molecule beautiful. Feynman always talked about the beauty of the Benzene ring - how its in everything (plants, animals, hemoglobin).
    I get more a kick out of large ensembles of molecules, ATP synthase isn’t just beautiful, it might just be the equivalent of the tabernacle! If I had to choose I would say there is something odd and quirky, (nerd herdy indeed) about the visual appeal of the saturated-fat-molecule-lipids that line cell walls. They’re just constantly moving, jiggling, writheting, allowing guys to ride on top of them and carry receptors to and fro. Atomically they have that crazy tail and that kink which allows the room for the movement. Quite a crazy molecule no?

    Also another neat thing is Carl Zimmer's science tattoo site - here are people who take appreciation of the beauty of molecules to another level! I always enjoy more their reasoning than the picture, the helix is beautiful (many of them go for the helix) but in reality it’s much more complex and shifted, wide, angled, etc. O well!

    On the realm of what beauty is – I once emailed a professor of economics (a friend) to ask him why he thought his garden was beautiful (he told me to ask my mother artist why the Mona Lisa was beautiful, why any art was beautiful). To him it was enough that it pleases ,and he’d rather leave the whys and wherefore’s to the philosphers of aesthetics.

    Per beauty applied to humans, I always remember this quip from Darwin when looking at a beautiful woman I find attractive that is not exactly ‘native’ average white Midwestern American. Darwin said the Fuegians too had a standard of beauty, but it always related to a slight shift from the mean, but not too extreme. It had to be a slight shift from the average – more interestingly, if everyone looked the way beauty is currently defined, beauty would then mean some deviation from that! So I wonder how this applies to what one views as a beautiful molecule?

    Darwin, Feynman, the philosophy of aesthetics, flowers, plants, Benzene rings – molecules! Fun!

  5. We are lucky to have knolwedge of molecules. If you've been inspired by the structure of DNA, hemoglobin or buckminsterfullerene, for example, and thought of them as beautiful, you are privileged to see another exquisite dimension of Nature that many people don't encounter daily. As I see it, Nature has many levels, each of them infinitely spectacular. Almost everyone encounters the level of what's visible to the naked eye- flowers, crystals, animals, trees, mountains, rivers, seas, snow, the Sun, the Moon, babies, stars, rainbows, the Milky Way, colours. Below that level and above the molecular plane are microscopic things- the details of insect anatomy, plant and animal tissue structure, among others. Then we get to organelles and subcellular structures. Then to molecules, which are so varied and marvellous- they are a whole world themselves. As we go further into the world of the very small, we deal with atomic structure, subatomic particles and electromagnetic radiation. Then we get to areas of physics that are less understood, but their mathematical beauty is striking and one day we'll know more about them and they'll be another world of vast beauty. But let's go back the other way, because beyond what we see with the naked eye there are other planets, intercosmic dust, black holes, pulsars, galaxies of amazing shapes and attractiveness; galaxy clusters, clusters of galaxy clusters like the Sloan Great Wall, and beyond that, will there be other Universes and more? Not to mention the beauty of concepts and thought and the soul and love and emotion and music. Give me the knowledge....I want to know it all!


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