A university gallery in upper New York state has merged art and science in a display of 10 giant molecules that each represent a key piece of American life and society over the past century.

Each display in Molecules that Matter, from nylon to penicillin to buckminsterfullerene (a carbon that is important in nanotechnology), includes a stick-and-ball molecule model like the ones that normally live in chemistry classrooms, related cultural artificats and a piece of art. The display is in the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College.

So the polyethylene molecule is displayed with Tony Cragg's wall relief, New Figuration — which includes discarded plastic from broken garden tools, toys, bottles, and a lighter — and two pink plastic lawn flamingoes.

Each of the 10 molecules is associated with a decade in which it appeared or made a big impact. Along with nylon, penicillin, buckminsterfullerene and polyethylene, the models include aspirin, isooctane (a key element in gasoline), DNA, progestin (used in The Pill), DDT and Prozac.

The models are up to four metres long. That's because "these molecules aren't visible to the naked eye, and yet they are bigger than we are," said co-curator John Weber.

The idea for the display, which opened in September, originated with Skidmore chemistry professor Ray Giguere. According to the university website, he approached the Tang's director in 2000.

"Let's build organic models big so that they look like abstract sculpture," Giguere said, "and let's fill the rest of the exhibit with cultural artifacts that will remind us of the period and the impact these molecules have had on our lives."

Giguere saw similarites in the ways molecular scientists and artists approach the world.  

"Organic chemistry is molecular architecture," he said. "It's a very visual subject, which is why these models are so important to practicing scientists and are used by them on a daily basis. We twist them, we turn them, we try to hold them in our mind's eye, and models help us do that."

They also come apart because they are to go on tour after the Tang exhibition ends in April.