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X-ray Crystallography At 100

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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.

Written by Guest Author