Crystals: Beauty, Science, Structure

An exploration of human understanding and uses of crystals throughout the ages.
Museum of the History of Science, Old Ashmolean Building, Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3AZ, Thu 7 November - Tue 25 March 2014

March 13, 2014

The golden years of crystallographers is being celebrated with their Nobel Peace prize displayed alongside their laboratory equipment to note 100 years of the study of crystals. There is an interesting after life to the initial successes of these scientists. William Bragg was involved War duties when awarded his prize in 1915 and so postponed his lectures until 1922.

Unravelling the lives of other famous scientists reveals further struggles. Dorothy Hodgkin's laboratory is described as a joyous and productive place, however the Cold War stopped her touring many overseas academic institutions to lecture on Insulin until she was in her eighties.

The inspiration to devote a life to marking the position of atoms in crystalline structure shines through brilliantly in the display cabinets. In addition to the benefits offered to mankind, the unstoppable beauty of these natural substances is obvious: gold glistens in the Pyrites from Spain and silver glimmers through the opaque Baryte from Wensleydale, taking the attention immediately.

The exhibition shows methodically how equipment changes during the life of a scientist, and hence changing their working methods do also. The manual goniometer, to physically measure angles between crystals, is gradually replaced by the electron microscope. The flow of electrons create map-like images that inspires art through its geometry. Man-made images emulating the electron micrograph are embroidered onto tablecloths shown here were also displayed at The Festival of Britain in 1951.

The scientist's endeavour offers different opportunities to interpret what we see in front of us. Whilst a model of Watson and Crick's DNA structure is on show, reference is made to how in the middle ages, crystals were seen as having occult properties. With technology speeding up the sequencing technique is completed in days as opposed to months. Today it is the mind of the scientist and not 'crystal-gazing' that leads the way.

February 6, 2014

A crystal ball might seem a bit out of place in a science exhibition, but don't worry: the Museum of the History of Science hasn't gone over to the dark side, they're just reminding us that people have been fascinated by crystals for thousands of years.

"Crystals: Beauty, Science, Structure" is an intriguing look at the science of crystallography. An introductory video gives an overview of what crystallography is and why it's important and then it's on to the exhibits. These cover everything from the discovery of the structure of sodium chloride (common salt) in 1913 to the role of the Diamond Light Source, based at Didcot, in determining the structure of proteins and the development of drugs.

This is a tiny exhibition that punches well above its weight - well worth popping in at lunchtime or if you're out shopping.

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