What is crystallography?

What is crystallography? This is the question recently posed by Walter Steurer, Editor in Chief of Zeitschrift für Kristallographie, in an invitation to crystallographers worldwide to contribute to a special issue of Zeitschrift für Kristallographie on the occasion of its 125th anniversary. This special issue will contain short contributions of 125 crystallographers and a summary of their personal opinions. To quote Prof. Steurer: 'There is an ongoing discussion at many universities if crystallographic research and teaching is still timely. In many cases retired professors of crystallography are not being replaced by crystallographers any more. One of the reasons for this development may be that crystallography is commonly seen in its narrow definition as a method for routine structure analysis.

In my opinion, there has opened a wide gap between the self-understanding of the crystallographic community and the perception from outside. At the triennial conferences of the IUCr it is shown what modern crystallography comprises. I believe, however, that most of the participants would not call themselves crystallographers despite the fact that they do excellent crystallographic research.

This may be related to the fact that it is not clear whether crystallography is a scientific discipline or just a suite of methods. R.W. Cahn, in his book 'The coming of Materials Science' (Pergamon 2001), calls crystallography an exceptional parepisteme, i.e. a kind of subsidiary topic or subdiscipline. Disciplines are degree subjects at universities while parepistemes such as crystallography usually form components of degree courses only.

Anyway, modern crystallography is a dynamic and innovative interdisciplinary structural science. This should be better communicated to the scientific community, the science administration, the funding agencies and the politicians. The planned special issue of Zeitschrift für Kristallographie is to contribute to this process.' To provoke discussion about what modern crystallography involves, Prof. Steurer sought comments on the following:

1. What is crystallography? Give your personal definition.

2. Is there a better name that could replace the historical term crystallography'?

3. What are the most important unsolved problems in crystallography? Give your personal list.

4. What is the future of crystallography?

5. Should we still teach crystallography? Why and how should we teach?

6. Personal recommendation to a student who wants to enter into crystallographic research.

7. What is the impact of crystallographic research? What would you tell your funding agency or the president of your university? What would you tell the taxpayer?

All members of crystallographic associations worldwide (ACA, BCA, SCANZ, ECA, AsCA etc.) should take these questions to heart and contemplate how they would respond. I look forward to reading the special issue [August 2002].

Mark Spackman, President, Soc. of Crystallography in Australia and New Zealand
from SCANZ Newsletter, No. 52, May 2002