There once was a dark and distant time when we only understood molecules as equations of letters and numbers. With the advent of crystallography — the science of how matter is arranged — we learned how to visualize molecules in 3D, helping us make everything from better medicines to stronger materials. Despite that huge advance, if you stopped someone in the street and asked them what crystallography was, chances are you would get a blank stare. To help raise awareness, and to celebrate a century of amazing discoveries, UNESCO has declared 2014 to be the International Year of Crystallography. Here’s a bluffer’s guide to the topic.
1. It starts with X-rays
Normally when you want to magnify things, you use a microscope. There is, however, a limit to the smallness of things you can see, namely the wavelength of the light you’re using. Since visible light has a frequency of between roughly 400 and 700 nanometers, it is unable to detect atoms, which are separated by merely 0.1 nanometers. X-rays, on the other hand, have just the right frequency.
2. Crystals are used to create diffractions
Unfortunately, we don’t have good enough lenses to produce x-ray microscopes capable of studying molecules. So scientists have to beam X-rays onto molecules, which scatter the rays, just as light is reflected when it hits any object. The shattered rays — called the diffraction — are then reassembled into an image by a computer program. But since the diffraction of a single molecule would be weak to the point of unintelligibility, scientists get the molecules they’re studying to clump together into crystal form. This highly ordered structure, made up of vast amounts of molecules, makes x-ray diffractions — the main tool of crystallography — easier to study.
3. So why chose 2014 for the International Year of Crystallography?
The International Year of Crystallography celebrates the centennial of the Nobel Prize of Max Von Laue, the first scientist to diffract x-rays with a crystal. However, the first person to solve a molecular structure — that of NaCl, or table salt — was the Brit William Lawrence Bragg. His equation to translate the diffraction into a structure, Bragg’s Law, is still in use today. In 1915, at age 25, he became the youngest Nobel laureate, when he jointly received the prize with his father William Henry Bragg. The Braggs went on to create a dynasty of groundbreaking crystallographers at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge.
This Royal Institute video describes the legacy of William Lawrence Bragg and his disciples:
4. Crystallography was crucial to one of the great discoveries of the 20th century
Establishing the structure of the DNA was one of the most significant scientific events of the 20th century. It has helped us understand how genetic messages are being passed on between cells inside our body — everything from the way instructions are sent to proteins to fight infections to how life is reproduced.
The discoverers of the molecular structure of DNA won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1962, the same year that crystallographers won the Chemistry prize for unveiling, for the first time, the molecular structure of a protein. Together, the two discoveries were instrumental in developing new medicines and providing a picture of the inner workings of our body:
5. Crystallography has always pushed the boundaries of technology
Crystallographers were among the first to use computers, in order to conduct the advanced arithmetic involved in reassembling diffractions into coherent images. Using quantum programming, scientists today are not only able to view molecules in 3D, but also to study the way they operate (Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for just that in 2013). The improvement of x-ray machines has also led to so-called synchrotron facilities, which are able to produce vastly more efficient and precise beams. Synchrotron technology helped in the development of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland, the world’s largest and most advanced machine, which proved the existence of Higgs boson, “the God particle” that may explain the elusive “dark matter” that makes up most of our universe.
Sven Lidin, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, is very excited about the prospects of future technology for the science. “So far, we have to some extent been like an inebriated man fumbling for a lost key in the narrow pool of light cast by a torch,” Lidin told TIME. “Soon, we can look forward to a wide search across the field, thanks to new technology like the free electron laser, among many other things.”
6. Crystallography is going to help us produce a virtual physiological human
In 2003, the largest collaborative biological project to date, the Human Genome Project, managed to map out the complete human DNA. In the years to come, scientists hope to produce a “virtual physiological human,” a complete 3D-model of the body that features everything from organs right down to individual cells, proteins and genes.
Dozens of research institutions around the world have already been collaborating for over a decade to make this project happen. Realized, the project holds the promise of making more precise and holistic diagnoses, reducing the need for animal experiments, assisting in the performance of virtual surgery and helping to personalize medication.
Besides this huge undertaking, there are still a myriad viruses, proteins and other molecules to figure out. Breakthroughs may help to protect us against new strands of bird flu and to invent materials that further modern and more environmentally friendly technology.