Crystals humanized

Istvan HargittaiMagdolna Hargittai
Snowflake photomicrographs by W. A. Bentley from Bentley & Humphreys [12].

We have collected a few textual and pictorial expressions that refer to crystals anthropomorphically (we based much of this contribution on material extracted from our monograph [1]). We dedicate this contribution to Alan L. Mackay on his 97th birthday. Alan has broadened our worldview of structures.

The Czech writer Karel Čapek (1890−1938) wrote about crystals following his visit to the mineral collection of the British Museum. To express his humility in front of these miracles of nature, he added a drawing to his description [2]:

Karel Čapek's drawing after his visit to the mineral collection of the British Museum [2] (the English translation of the source was kindly provided by Alan L. Mackay).

"...But I must speak again about crystals, shapes, colours. There are crystals as huge as the colonnade of a cathedral, soft as mold, prickly as thorns; pure, azure, green, like nothing else in the world, fiery black; mathematically exact, complete, like constructions by crazy, capricious scientists, or reminiscent of the liver, the heart ... There are crystal grottos, monstrous bubbles of mineral mass, there is fermentation, fusion, growth of minerals, architecture, and engineering art ... Even in human life, there is a hidden force towards crystallization. Egypt crystallizes in pyramids and obelisks, Greece in columns; the Middle Ages in vials; London in grimy cubes ... Like secret mathematical flashes of lightning, the countless laws of construction penetrate the matter. To equal nature, it is necessary to be mathematically and geometrically exact. Number and phantasy, law and abundance — these are the living, creative strengths of nature; not to sit under a green tree but to create crystals and to form ideas, that is what it means to be at one with nature!"

Aleksandr I. Kitaigorodsky (1914−1985) liked to ascribe anthropomorphic traits to crystals. He said when asked about his most important achievement in science: "I have shown that the molecule is a body. One can take it, one can hit with it; it has mass, volume, form, hardness. I followed the ideas of Democritos" [3]. Another version of this notion, attributed to Kitaigorodsky, that we heard repeatedly, reads: "The molecule also has a body; when it's hit, the molecule feels hurt all over." For Kitaigorodsky, this implied possible structural changes upon the molecules entering the crystal structure. This statement was the more remarkable because it signified a departure from his earlier views about the constancy of molecular shape and geometry regardless of whether the molecule was in the gas phase or in a crystal. One of us remembers a chemistry meeting in what at the time was East Germany — the German Democratic Republic — in some respects more Soviet than even the Soviet Union. There, Kitaigorodsky was quoted as referring to molecules as being free in the gas phase but no longer free in the crystal, and that loss of freedom would cause deformation. Part of the audience took it as a political statement as if reading between the lines, equating the crystalline state with a rigid, regimented political system.

Maurits C. Escher (1898−1972), the Dutch graphic artist whose periodic drawings have been so helpful in discussing space-group symmetries, had romantic notions about crystals. The author Bruno Ernst, who wrote a book about Escher's art, quoted him [4]:

"Long before there were men on this globe, all the crystals grew within the earth's crust. Then came a day when, for the very first time, a human being perceived one of these glittering fragments of regularity; or maybe he struck against it with his stone ax; it broke away and fell at his feet; then he picked it up and gazed at it lying there in his open hand. And he marveled.

"There is something breathtaking about the basic laws of crystals. They are in no sense a discovery of the human mind; they just 'are' — they exist quite independently of us. The most that man can do is to become aware, in a moment of clarity, that they are there, and take cognizance of them."

Alan L. Mackay presented another anthropomorphic view that had its roots in his experience as a crystallographer. He expressed it in a poem [5]:

"My molecule is sick,
And I have caught the illness too.
Two atoms have temperatures,
Which are negative,
And two are not resolved at all.
How can I find a cure –
The R-factor is enormous,
And direct methods fail me?
Perhaps it is not my métier,
To be a structure analyst."

The female poet Anna Wickham (born Edith Alice Mary Harper, 1884–1947) in her poem The Woman and Her Initiative contrasted her 'colloid' self with her husband's 'crystalline' character, and the impression is that the latter’s demeanour left much to be desired [6]:

"Give me a deed, and I will give a quality.
Compel this colloid with your crystalline.
Show clear the difference between you and me.
By some plain symmetry, some clear stated line.
These bubblings, these half-actions, my revolt from unity.
Give me a deed, and I will show my quality."

In another poem, Gift to a Jade, it is unambiguous what she meant by her husband’s crystallinity [7]:

"For love he offered me his perfect world.
This world was so constricted and so small,
It had no loveliness at all,
And I flung back the silly little ball.
At that cold moralist I hotly hurled
His perfect, pure, symmetrical, small world."

Alan L. Mackay has done much to expand crystallography to embrace more among the structures of nature than merely the regular and the periodical. He pioneered handling systems with varying degrees of regularity in their structures, and he wrote about this not only in scientific treatises but also in his poetry. We quote here an example about flying through the clouds [5]:

"We cruise through the hydrosphere,
Our world is of water, like the sea,
But the molecules more sparsely spread,
Not independent, not touching,
But somewhere in between,
Clustering, crystallizing, dispersing
In the delicate balance of radiation
And the adiabatic lapse rate."

A beautiful example of imbuing crystals with human qualities is in the crystallographer Charles W. Bunn’s (1905−1990) drawings [8] (reproduced in [1], 3rd ed., p. 495) and the writer John Ruskin’s (1819−1900) words (cited here from [9]): 

"And remember, the poor little crystals have to live their lives, and mind their own affairs, in the midst of all this, as best they may. They are wonderfully like human creatures − forget all that is going on if they don't see it, however dreadful; and never think what is to happen tomorrow. They are spiteful or loving, and indolent or painstaking, with no thought whatever of the lava or the flood which may break over them any day; and evaporate them into air-bubbles or wash them into a solution of salts. And you may look at them, once understanding the surrounding conditions of their fate, with an endless interest. You will see crowds of unfortunate little crystals, who have been forced to constitute themselves in a hurry, their dissolving element being fiercely scorched away; you will see them doing their best, bright and numberless, but tiny. Then you will find indulged crystals, who have had centuries to form themselves in, and have changed their mind and ways continually; and have been tired, and taken heart again; and have been sick, and got well again; and thought they would try a different diet, and then thought better of it; and made but a poor use of their advantages, after all.

"And sometimes you may see hypocritical crystals taking the shape of others, though they are nothing like in their minds; and vampire crystals eating out the hearts of others; and hermit crab crystals living on the shells of others; and parasite crystals living on the means of others; and courtier crystals glittering in the attendance upon others; and all these, besides the two great companies of war and peace, who ally themselves, resolutely to attack, or resolutely to defend. And for the close, you see the broad shadow and deadly force of inevitable fate, above all this: you see the multitudes of crystals whose time has come; not a set time, as with us, but yet a time, sooner or later, when they all must give up their crystal ghost − when the strength by which they grew, and the breath given them to breathe, pass away from them; and they fail, and are consumed, and vanish away; and another generation is brought to life, framed out of their ashes."

Death is an integral component of life, and the crystalline state is often associated with lifelessness and death. An eloquent description of the beauty and symmetry of snowflakes — water crystals — is given by Thomas Mann (1875−1955) in The Magic Mountain [10]. Here, in addition to their breathtaking beauty, Mann expresses also why their high symmetry is associated with a 'life-denying character':

"...Indeed, the little soundless flakes were coming down more quickly as he stood. Hans Castorp put out his arm and let some of them to rest on his sleeve; he viewed them with the knowing eye of the nature-lover. They looked mere shapeless morsels; but he had more than once had their like under his good lens and was aware of the exquisite precision of form displayed by these little jewels, insignia, orders, agraffes − no jeweller, however skilled, could do finer, more minute work. Yes, he thought, there was a difference, after all, between this light, soft, white powder he trod with his skis, that weighed down the trees, and covered the open spaces, a difference between it and the sand on the beaches at home, to which he had likened it. For this powder was not made of tiny grains of stone; but of myriads of tiniest drops of water which in freezing had darted together in symmetrical variation − parts, then, of the same inorganic substance, which was the source of protoplasm, of plant life, of the human body. And among these myriads of enchanting little stars, in their hidden splendour that was too small for man's naked eye to see, there was not one like unto another, and endless inventiveness governed the development and unthinkable differentiation of one and the same basic scheme, the equilateral, equiangular hexagon. Yet each, in itself − this was the uncanny, the anti-organic, the life-denying character of them all − each of them was absolutely symmetrical, icily regular in form. They were too regular, as substance adapted to life never was to this degree − the living principle shuddered at this perfect precision, found it deathly, the very marrow of death − Hans Castorp felt he understood now the reason why the builders of antiquity purposely and secretly introduced minute variation from absolute symmetry in their columnar structures."

We augment this beautiful prose with the whaling captain and Arctic explorer William Scoresby’s (1789−1857) drawings of snowflakes from Tom Stamp and Cordelia Stamp’s little-known book [11] (see below), and a sample of photographs from W. A. Bentley and W. J. Humphreys’ famous book of snowflakes [12] (see above).

William Scoresby’s sketches of snowflakes from his 1806 logbook from Stamp & Stamp [11].

Scientists have expressed the same, perhaps less eloquently but most succinctly. According to Michael Polanyi (1891−1976), a perfectly ordered environment was not a suitable habitat (attributed to Michael Polanyi according to a private communication) [13]. The crystallographers Evgraf S. Fedorov (1853−1919) and J. Desmond Bernal (1901−1971) simply stated that "crystallization is death" [14, 15].


[1] Hargittai, M. & Hargittai, I. (1986, 2009). Symmetry through the Eyes of a Chemist. 1st ed, Weinheim: VCH; 3rd ed, Springer.

[2] Čapek, K. (1970). Anglické Listy. Praha.

[3] Zorky, P. M. (1993). The Development of Organic Crystal Chemistry at Moscow State University. ACH Models Chem. 130, 173–181.

[4] Ernst, B. (1976). The Magic Mirror of M. C. Escher. New York: Ballantine Books.

[5] Mackay, A. L. (1980). The Floating World of Science. Poems. London: RAM Press.

[6] Wickham, A. (1971). Selected Poems, p. 27. London: Chatto & Windus.

[7] Wickham, A. (1971). Selected Poems, p. 21. London: Chatto & Windus.

[8] Bunn, C. (1964). Crystals: Their Role in Nature and Science. New York: Academic Press.

[9] Azaroff, L. V. (1960). Introduction to Solids. New York: McGraw-Hill.

[10] Mann, T. (1946). The Magic Mountain, p. 480. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

[11] Stamp, T. & Stamp, C. (1976). William Scoresby, Arctic Scientist. Caedmon of Whitby.

[12] Bentley, W. A. & Humphreys, W. J. (1962). Snow Crystals. New York: Dover Publications.

[13] Neidhardt, J. (1984). Private communication, New Jersey Institute of Technology.

[14] Mackay, A. L. (1975). Generalized Crystallography. Izv. Jugosl. Cent. Kristallogr. 10, 15–36. London: University of London.

[15] Mackay, A. L. (1982). Private communication, University of London.

Istvan Hargittai and Magdolna Hargittai are located at Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Hungary.
25 September 2023

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