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Monday, December 17, 2007

Chemistry Assignments in Second Life

This term, the students in my organic chemistry class were presented with an opportunity to do an extra credit assignment using Second Life to represent concepts they learned in the course.

When I was an undergraduate, finding molecules in articles was mainly done using the Chemical Abstracts books. A convenient way to find a specific molecule would be to look up the molecular formula and find the corresponding IUPAC name. Theoretically, one could figure out the IUPAC name from scratch but this can be very tricky for complex molecules and prone to error. With the correct name, I could look for analogues of a molecule of interest in alphabetical catalogues by understanding how the chemical name works.

But when computer databases started to be used in chemistry, using the name of a compound became far less important. Searching for molecules now comes down to drawing them on computer screens and using computer generated text representations like SMILES and InChI. Knowing how to use these tools on free software and services is key to being fluent and flexible on the chemical web. And I think that is the most important benefit that students get from doing these assignments.

As an example, take a look at the project created by my student Charles Sineri (Chaz Balbozar in SL). In the image below he is standing between two molecules of camphor that are mirror images of each other, demonstrating the concept of chirality that we covered in class. This is a particularly difficult example to demonstrate on paper.

Using molecular models that are bigger than my body is not something that I have ever done in real life and it provides an interesting perspective to what the molecule really looks like. Another advantage is that you can fly the molecule like an airplane by wearing it. Here is Chaz flying up to a buckyball on his camphor ship:

In order to get his project done Chaz had to learn about and use SMILES, InChIs, ChemSpider and ChemSketch. These are free tools that he will use again in future chemistry applications.

The main challenge in getting this implemented in Second Life is providing tools that are easy to use. We used Andy Lang's (Hiro Sheridan in SL) molecule rezzer to do this because it now has the capability of understanding InChIs and SMILES. Hiro was kind enough to make some further modifications to make it even easier to use. It was gratifying to see that it understood chiral SMILES code.

Visit Chaz's project on Second Nature island - see SLURL.


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