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Art and science collide

Pacific professor's art brings the human side of scientific discovery to light in campus painting exhibit
by: Courtesy photo The portraits of scientists like Louis Pasteur, adorn “100 Years of Organic Chemistry,” on display through January.

If the words 'organic chemistry' don't bring to mind colorful artworks, don't worry: You're not alone.

But for Pacific University chemistry professor David Cordes, the history of chemistry is rife with colorful personalities and even more colorful art.

And a new show, '100 Years of Organic Chemistry,' encompassing the professor's paintings depicting the dawn of organic chemistry in 19th century Europe makes it clear that Cordes is on to something. The display includes colorful depictions of the scientists and practices that shaped the evolution of organic chemistry amid the rise of socialism on the European continent. Each painting is paired with text offering brief history lessons about lives both famous (Louis Pasteur) and not so famous (August Hoffman).

'100 Years of Organic Chemistry' is on display as part of the annual Alumni and Faculty Show.

Cordes, who studied history at New York's Hunter College before earning his Ph.D in organic chemistry at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said he has always been interested in the history and people whose contributions helped shape the modern scientific landscapes. But Cordes wanted to look beyond the scientific findings and explore the people who worked tirelessly in the pursuit of knowledge.

'I've always had this interest in history, but you never really get to learn the interesting history or personalities in science classes. I really missed that,' said Cordes. 'I wanted to access that other side, the human history side.'

Cordes' images are vibrant and full of color - loaded with enough kaleidoscopic finesse to garner comparisons to classic concert posters. Yet despite their color, many of the artists' creations chronicle a time of innovation amid darkness, tracing the hardships scientists faced while developing their work in the Soviet Union or during the rise of Nazism in Germany.

'Looking at the bios that are often in the text book, they're often very condensed, but a lot of it is dark. Organic chemistry came of age when a lot of European nations were coming into their own, so there was a lot of nationalism and pride swirling around, and a lot of chemists bought into that,' said Cordes. 'They kind of paralleled the rise of nationalism and the animosities that arose and led to the wars of the early 20th century. You see the context a little more clearly when you start looking deeper into the field. I'm hoping this can be an entry point for people to broaden their views of science and how it does connect to the whirlwinds of history, commerce, industry and culture.'

Cordes said he hopes his work will inspire students and other viewers to look deeper into the sciences they study, to venture beyond the statistics and hard data to learn that theories and practices we see every day originated from humans and were often a product of their times.

In the meantime, he's happy getting out of the lab and discovering new and engaging ways of presenting science to his students.

'These things can be pretty cryptic, all these structures and things. It's got me thinking about communicating science visually with an art aspect,' said Cordes. 'On a certain level it's just fun to not be in a lab working at a bench, it's a different creative energy that I can tap into.'