Feature article

War, Peace and Crystallographers

[William Henry Bragg] William Henry Bragg

X-ray crystallographers around the world have traditionally formed a closely knit community, even as the community size has increased significantly in the last 30 years. This community has recently seen a burst of celebratory activities around the world, and rightly so, as 2012 marked the centenary year of the discovery of X-ray diffraction. Moreover, to the delight of crystallographers around the world, 2014 was declared as the International Year of Crystallography by the UN. The discovery of diffraction by X-rays indeed marked a landmark development in modern science, and has had an enormous impact on our understanding of fundamental aspects of nature - possibly beyond even the imagination of its early proponents. From the very early days, it has been apparent that properties of matter depend upon relative juxtaposition of atoms within molecules, to the extent that properties of even highly complex biological assemblies can be understood elegantly by studying the relative positions of atoms in these assemblies. As early as in 1925, William Henry Bragg noted in his essay 'Concerning the Nature of Things', the title borrowed from Lucretius's two thousand year old treatise, that 'The properties of the metals must depend, in the first place, on the properties of the individual atoms, and, in the second place, on the atomic arrangement, which is in effect the state of crystallization'. Over the years following the early developments, as X-ray crystallography became an important tool to address properties of matter, the practitioners of this technique slowly spread over the world, many of them tracing their roots to the British school led by the father and son Braggs. Social closeness among crystallographers is therefore not surprising given the common roots amongst most of them.

One of the interesting aspects of being such a closely knit community appears to be that related to the involvement of X-ray crystallographers in issues of social importance from the very early days. It is not surprising that among the scientists that took upon themselves to address societal issues were leading figures such as J. D. Bernal, Kathleen Lonsdale, Linus Pauling and Dorothy Hodgkin, all of whom shared another passion - using X-ray crystallographic tools to understand nature. All of them strongly argued for participation of scientists in societal matters, apart from their own outstanding contributions to science. The fact that they were all in their prime in the period between the two world wars, and that they were all known to each other closely, might have prompted their passion for the constructive use of science in society.

[William Lawrence Bragg] William Lawrence Bragg at the Third Congress and General Assembly of the IUCr in Paris, France in 1954. Photo contributed to the IUCr archive by William L. Duax.
[Linus Pauling] Linus Pauling at the American Crystallographic Assn Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, PA, USA in 1988. Photo contributed to the IUCr archive by William L. Duax.
[Kathleen Lonsdale] Kathleen Lonsdale at the Eighth Congress and General Assembly of the IUCr in Stony Brook, NY, USA in 1969. Photo contributed to the IUCr archive by Sidney C. Abrahams.
[Dorothy Hodgkin] Dorothy Hodgkin at the Ninth Congress and General Assembly of the IUCr in Kyoto, Japan in 1972.
[Ewald and Bernal] J. D. Bernal sits alongside P. P. Ewald at the Third Congress and General Assembly of the IUCr in Paris, France in 1954. Photo contributed to the IUCr archive by William L. Duax.

Even before crystallographers began involving themselves in the cause of promoting peace in the world, there were disturbing events due to the mindless violence of the two wars. Three of these related to iconic crystallographers deserve special mention. Foremost of these names are the Braggs and Moseley. Both of William Henry Bragg's sons had been drafted into military service during the First World War. Robert Bragg was posted to the Turkish front and died in an attack at Gallipoli. William Henry Bragg apparently never recovered from this personal loss, and consequently refused to travel to Stockholm to receive his Nobel Prize. His other son, with whom he shared the Nobel Prize, William Lawrence Bragg, eventually delivered the Nobel lecture and received the Prize, but nonetheless skipped the originally planned Prize ceremony.

Moseley had discovered the famous relationship between X-ray emission wavelength and atomic number of an element. This stunning discovery eventually led to the reorganization of the Periodic Table according to atomic number, instead of atomic weight as had been the practice earlier. He had learnt the technique of measuring X-ray spectra during a visit to William Henry Bragg's laboratory at Leeds. However, his brilliant academic career was cut short by the war in 1915. Moseley's death at the young age of 27 while fighting in the war at Gallipoli has been described by some authors as the single most costly death to mankind due to war. Indeed, what he might have achieved as a scientist in later years was cut short by the tragic event.

An unfortunate incident related to the ugliness of wars and historical monuments is related to that of Röntgen's famous house. The house where he had made one of the most profound discoveries of mankind - X-rays - was razed to the ground during the bombing of Wurzberg. Röntgen had passed away in the intervening period between the two wars, but ironically the house where he made the discovery was destroyed by bombing in his centennial year.

Kathleen Lonsdale is widely known as one of the first two ladies to be elected to the Royal Society. She was also the first woman President of the International Union of Crystallography. Her tutelage under William Henry Bragg and the first experimental evidence for the structure of benzene in 1929 have been as famous as her staunch anti-war personality. An important aspect of Lonsdale's remarkable personality is that despite the frenzy created in society about the imminent conflict, Kathleen Lonsdale refused to participate in the war when she was recruited by the armed forces. Although she could have reportedly sought pardon as her children were under the age of 14, she refused to do so for what she felt was denial of civil liberties. She demonstrated extreme courage by not paying the fine for refusing to do so, choosing instead to go to jail for this brave act of hers. Her forthrightness and anti-war sentiments have been recorded in her book on Removing the Causes of War.

Historians will debate whether these incidents had any influence on the likes of J. D. Bernal, Dorothy Hodgkin and Linus Pauling to take up the crusade for peace. Bernal, although he participated in the war by being the chief scientific advisor to the British Army, made compelling arguments on the value of science on societal development. In his highly influential book, The Social Function of Science, he notes that 'The millions who had suffered in the last War are aware that to a large extent their sufferings were directly due to scientific developments, and that science, far from having brought benefits to mankind, is in fact proving its worst enemy. The value of science itself has been put in question, and at last scientists have been forced to take notice of the outcry'.

Hodgkin and Pauling actively participated in movements against organized violence. Pauling was deeply concerned about the possible misuses of nuclear technologies, and actively organized protests against them. Hodgkin was a life-long supporter of non-violence and was an active supporter of the promotion of science in third-world countries. Out of these convictions, she chaired the Pugwash movement in the mid 1970s. One of the strongest supporters of Scientists for World Affairs was Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India. The first Pugwash conference was indeed understood to have taken place in Delhi at the invitation of Mr Nehru.

[Shekhar Mande] Shekhar Mande

Against this backdrop, one wonders if the crystallographic community will take up the cause of peace around the world once again. The International Union of Crystallography will do well to take cues from these people actively to persuade governments around the world to find peaceful solutions to problems. Areas that currently need special attention are those in the Middle East, central Africa, and the Koreas. With the IUCr Congress being hosted in 2017 in Hyderabad, India, crystallographers might think of their role in society once again.

Shekhar Mande