Celebrating Crystallography

100 years of Crystallography

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An animated celebration

X-ray crystallography is arguably one of the greatest innovations of the twentieth century, but not that many people know what it is or how it came about.

Join us on an animated journey through the 100 year history of crystallography – from the pioneering work of William and Lawrence Bragg in 1913 to the surface of Mars!

Narrated by structural biologist Stephen Curry and produced by animation company 12foot6, the film explores the extraordinary history of crystallography. To date 28 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to projects related to the field and X-ray crystallography remains the foremost technique in determining the structures of a huge range of complex molecules.

This film was produced in celebration of the Bragg Centenary and was funded by STFC.

For more animated wizardry from 12foot6, check out the Science Club collection.


Materials, Talking Science, Technology


Professor Stephen Curry

12foot6 / Royal Institution

Collections with this video:
The Crystallography Collection

Licence: © Royal Institution

Related Links and Media

  • Max Perutz introduces us to X-ray crystallography.

    Image: Royal Institution

  • William and Lawrence Bragg mentored a 'dream team' of crystallographers.

    Image: Royal Institution

  • Today, the work hasn't stopped...

    Image: Royal Institution

  • Supported by the Science and Technology Facilities Council




Why water boils at 100 degrees and methane at minus 161. Why blood is red and grass is green. Why diamond is hard and wax soft. Why glaciers flow and iron gets hard when you hammer it. The answers to all these problems have come from structural analysis.

That's how the Nobel Prize winner Max Perutz summed up x-ray crystallography. Never heard of it? Don't worry. Not many people have. Yet it's arguably one of the greatest innovations of the 20th century. 28 Nobel prizes have been awarded to projects related to crystallography. And the very first of those is where it all began.

It's now 100 years since, following early work by Max Von Laue, the first structures were determined by father and son team, William and Lawrence Bragg. In 1913, they fired a narrow beam of x-rays at a humble salt crystal and photographed the diffraction pattern as the crystals split the beam into many rays.

Lawrence soon realised that this pattern held the clues to the atomic structure of the crystal itself. The equation he developed, Bragg's law, made it possible to work out how the spots in the diffraction pattern are related to the specific arrangement of atoms in the crystal. Two years on, and the Braggs were awarded the Nobel Prize. Impressive stuff.

Not only that, the Braggs mentored a dream team of crystallographers who went on to work out the structures of a huge range of molecules. From Kathleen Lonsdale, JD Bernal, Dorothy Hodgkin, to David Phillips, John Kendrew, and Max Perutz. Remember him? Plus Rosalind Franklin and others even helped map the structure of DNA, probably the most famous result of x-ray crystallography.

Today, the work hasn't stopped. Crystallography remains the foremost technique for working out the atomic structures of almost anything, which is very useful for finding out why things behave the way they do. From the metallic structure of the blades of a jet turbine to the immune system fighting off viruses. Turns out Max was right.

Modern crystallographers are doing exactly the same thing as the Braggs, just at a larger scale with more sophisticated mathematical methods and more impressive machines. Crystallography is even reaching beyond our planet. The Curiosity Rover is now performing x-ray diffraction analysis of the soil on Mars.

But there's plenty of unfinished business back on Earth. There are still many thousands of complex molecules to look at, and a lot more questions to answer.


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