Friday, June 17, 2011


The app Molecules by Sunset Lake software renders 3D visualizations of molecules. The images are beautifully displayed, and the updating is incredibly fast and fluid even with complex molecules. This is a mature app that has been around for some time and has gone through a number of improvements.

There are two motion settings (changed with a button on the top right), one in which the image slowly rotates and the second a manual mode in which you drag your finger across then iPad (or iPhone) to see the molecule from any perspective. I particularly like the second mode when I am speaking to a class or group (with the Apple Digital AV adapter the iPad 2 display can be mirrored to a HD TV or monitor via a HDMI cable).

A control on the top right of the Molecules app display allows switching between space-filling and ball and stick representations. You can use two finger pinch to zoom in or out, and as mentioned a single finger drag to set viewing angle.

You can store a variety of molecules and easily switch between them from a list. This is particularly valuable for talks and lectures where you can set it up in advance. One user note, you only get the molecule list when in landscape mode.

The app comes with a few complex molecules pre-installed. Some
reviews have unfairly claimed that the software is not suitable for teaching about simple molecules. It is an easy job to import new molecules from either the PubChem or Protein Data Bank libraries. You start by pressing (when in landscape mode) the + button (top left), then select the database. For general use select the PubChem database, then simply enter the word for the chemical or category, and it will give you a list of molecules to select for download.

To remove molecules from the list, select landscape mode, then press Edit in the top left and then delete one or more molecules. One can enter molecules manually using either URLs or the iTunes interface. I have not tried this feature.

There is some additional text information included for most molecules, which is brought forward by using the blue triangle by the name of the molecule. As well as the structural information, the journal reference is given for most complex structures.

This wonderful app was created by Brad Larson of Wisconsin. He is Chief Technology Officer at SonoPlot, Inc., a company that designs microscale fluid dispensing systems. Sunset Lake Software is his part-time venture that does application development and software consulting. Brad Larson has an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a PhD in materials science.

I have used Molecules on both my first generation iPod Touch (updated to iOS 3.1.3) and on my iPad 2 and it works flawlessly on both, so I presume it works on intermediate models as well. The app is free, and the source code can be downloaded under the BSD license.

As a university instructor I see huge potential for this app. Rather than telling students about molecular structures, Molecules can be used in a guided inquiry mode. Let students examine complex molecules from different perspectives and answer a series of questions to predict properties from structures, or to compare two similar molecules.

The Molecules app is indispensable to researchers and educators who need to present molecular structures. Students will find it an excellent resource, especially in courses such as organic chemistry or biochemistry. Considering that it is free, it is an incredibly elegant display of molecular information. I rate it at 9 (out of 10). There are few apps that as impressively demonstrate the power of iOs devices. Why not try Molecules out for yourself by downloading it here?

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