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From crystals of cancer drugs to atomic patterns drawn in the sand, a new photography exhibition at the Royal Albert hall perfectly captures the beauty and intricacy inherent in the science of crystallography.
Illuminating Atoms, by the photographer Max Alexander, depicts a series of documentary images of crystallography experiments in action, alongside portraits of modern day crystallographers. The exhibition, which is sponsored by the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the Wellcome Trust, GSK, AstraZeneca, Pharmorphix and Diamond Light Source, conveys the untold story of crystallography, demonstrating the range of science taking place and the rich and vibrant community working in this field.
Since its inception, over 100 years ago, crystallography has had an illustrious history, having supported the discovery of antibiotics, penicillin, and the double helix in DNA. The technique is still used today to study a vast range of matter, including viruses like HIV, treatments for cancer, advanced nanotech materials, and innovative green energy solutions.
The exhibition, which features scientists and experiments from academia and industry, is made up of 37 photographs, depicting both the science and the people on the front line. Illuminating Atoms builds on some of the key tropes of crystallography – the diffraction pattern, Bragg’s law, atomic structure – to demonstrate the rich complexity of the field. David Keen, ISIS physicist and President of the British Crystallographic Association, was pictured on a beach next to a diffraction pattern drawn into the sand.
David reveals the behind the scenes work that went into creating the pictures: "I can tell you that making 641 precisely arranged holes in the sand is pretty hard work! But I enjoyed the idea that the neutron diffraction pattern we were drawing was from a quartz crystal, the key compound in sand. The picture is very thought-provoking in that way."
The exhibition is unique in its depiction of a broad range of scientists and experiments; that’s because, for Max, the exhibition was about telling the untold story of crystallography: “My mission was essentially to connect the public to this astonishing scientific technique. Crystallography has been hugely significant throughout the 20th Century, and crystallographers continue to make a real contribution to society through their work. It’s something I wanted people to know about, and I’ve endeavoured to tell that story in a beautiful and engaging way.”
Crystallography has been deeply significant to the history of science, but it’s also made its mark on social history. The story of crystallography boasts some high profile female figures, including Kathleen Lonsdale, Helen Megaw, Rosalind Franklin, and Nobel Prize winners Dorothy Hodgkin and Ada E. Yonath. Featuring women from all fields using crystallography, Max’s photographs convey the vital role women continue to play in the field.
The exhibition sends the message loud and clear: crystallography is as exciting as it is beautiful. Max’s images of vast scientific facilities juxtaposed with minute crystal structures demonstrate the intricacy of crystallography; whilst his portraits illustrate the gamut of personalities that work in the field. Pairing visual splendour with the human story, Illuminating Atoms creates a powerful picture of this hugely significant scientific technique.
STFC ISIS WISH Diffractometer, Didcot: Engineers maintain the WISH instrument, which is used for neutron-crystallography experiments. This diffractometer, with its large array of detectors encircling the sample, is perfect for studying the arrangement of magnetic atoms in exotic superconducting crystals.
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