Author Archives: Boris Jardine, Curator, History of Science

Magnesium ammonium phosphate model by Kathleen Lonsdale, c. 1966. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

X-ray crystallography at 100

In 1913, following the discovery that crystals produce patterns when subjected to X-ray bombardment, father-and-son team William and Lawrence Bragg formalised the laws of X-ray crystallography. In 1915 they won a Nobel Prize for their work – Lawrence, at 25, remaining to this day the youngest winner. To celebrate the centenary of X-ray crystallography, the Science Museum has just opened Hidden Structures, a new display of molecular models made using the technique.

Why water boils at a 100°C and methane at -161°C; why blood is red and grass is green; how sunlight makes plants grow and how living organisms have been able to evolve into ever complex forms – the answers to all these problems have come from structural analysis. - Max Perutz

Since it was first developed, X-ray crystallography has been the preeminent method of analysis of molecular structure, leading to a profound understanding of the way various substances are built. The spectacular patterns revealed by the technique and the necessity of constructing large-scale molecular models has resulted in some of the Science Museum’s most striking objects.

By far the most famous result of X-ray crystallography is the structure of DNA, discovered by Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, James D. Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. The context of this vital work is not usually talked about – the Science Museum’s display shows that proteins, viruses and other molecules were being intensively studied in the years after World War II. And the timing isn’t a coincidence: some scientists who considered the atomic bomb to be an abuse of physics turned to molecular biology, as a way of working with the fundamental physical structure but for a benign purpose.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about X-ray crystallography is that it has played an important part in the story of modern design. At the 1951 Festival of Britain – an even famed for its colourful and innovative look – one of the main visual motifs was atomic structure. We hope we’ve captured something of the spirit of 1951 in this display of important and intriguing models.

Brois Jardine is Curator of History of Science at the Science Museum. Hidden Structures, a new display case celebrating the centenary of X-ray crystallography, opens today until the end of 2013.

Art at the coalface

This is undoubtedly our most famous painting: Philip J. de Loutherbourg’s 1801 ‘Coalbrookdale by Night’, a noisome depiction of the industrial revolution in all its terrible glory.

P.J. de Loutherbourg, 'Coalbrookdale by Night', 1801 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Here are the ‘Bedlam furnaces’ in action – open coke hearths used for smelting iron, the visible face of a burgeoning coal industry. But if we dig a little deeper, we find a rich and little-known iconographic seam in the Science Museum’s art collection.

For one thing, what de Loutherbourg saw at Coalbrookdale was not all fire and brimstone:

P.J. de Loutherbourg, 'Colebrook Dale' (engraved by William Pickett), 1805 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

In this engraving, done only a few years after ‘Coalbrookdale’, everything is reversed: night has become day, the horse returns, and the sublime power of the iron works has transformed into picturesque calm. This is in line with much 19th-century industrial art; in the 1840s, for example, W. Wheldon produced the following two oil-paintings of collieries:

W. Wheldon, 'North Eastern coalfield: colliery pit-head and coking ovens' and 'Colliery and wagonway, Northumberland and Durham coalfield', both 1845 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Although he shows us the pollution at one colliery and the rough incursion into the landscape of the other, Wheldon’s pit-heads and coke ovens are undoubtedly clean and well organised, the elegant buildings perhaps even preferable to unruly Nature.

Attractive as these images are they don’t really tell us what life was like in the heart of the colliery, deep underground in the mines themselves. Such frank portrayals of the lives of miners are rare – it’s not easy to get access to a mine, much less to publicise its cruel machinations.

But amongst the Science Museum’s pictorial collections there is one such piece of documentary evidence: a remarkable set of amateur paintings, dating from the 1920s and ’30s, done by a miner called Gilbert Daykin. After each day at the pit Daykin would return home to paint from memory in his kitchen studio. Here is his 1934 ‘Thirst – The End of a Shift’, in which the deputy looks on dispassionately as one of his charges drinks from his 3-pint ‘Dudley’ flask:

Gilbert Daykin, 'The Dudley: Thirst - The End of a Shift', 1934 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

In all of his works Daykin shows the stoic miners, neither pitying nor lionizing them. Yet he was subtly polemical. Another 1934 painting is entitled ‘The Tub: At the end of the coalface’, and shows two men working in cramped conditions:

Gilbert Daykin, ''The Tub: At the End of the Coalface', 1934 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

The startling light and looming shadows create an impressive scene, an apt counterpart to de Loutherbourg’s grandiose ‘Coalbrookdale by Night’. But look closely and you’ll see that all is not well: the main crossbeam is cracking. The miner, his head touching the ceiling, is at risk of being crushed.

As Daykin said when interviewed for his exhibition: “I live in eternal dread of some injury to my eyes and hands. I am a specialist in dangerous jobs.” In 1939 Daykin was killed when the mineshaft he was working in collapsed.