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Launch of the International Year of Crystallography

Paris, France, January 20-21, 2014

From SCANZ Newsletter, No. 63, Feb 2014 (abridged version)

[IYCr logo]
[Monday audience] The Monday morning audience.

The Opening Ceremony of the International Year of Crystallography was held on Monday, January 20 and Tuesday, January 21 at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Over 800 people attended the opening sessions that included a collection of welcoming remarks – a recorded video welcome address from Ban Ki-moon and an address by the UNESCO Director-General who formally opened the meeting, followed by welcoming speeches from the President and Vice President of the IUCr, a representative of the Moroccan government (that Kingdom put the case to declare 2014 as IYCr), the President of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), and Presidents or Past Presidents of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, European Physical Society, International Mineralogical Association, and the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Some of these talks reminded the audience that 2011 was the International Year of Chemistry and 2015 will be the International Year of Light. There were remarks on the history of crystallography, and on the history of the IUCr. The UNESCO speakers seemed to show particular interest in the contribution that crystallography might make to sustainable development. The IUCr Vice-President described the IUCr-UNESCO program of OpenLabs in Africa, South and Central America, and South Asia.

[Quartz]Mankind's fascination with crystals was stimulated by the discovery of naturally occuring clusters of rock crystal (quartz). (Photo by J.-L. Hodeau)
[Voyage stand] Public exhibition 'Voyage into the Crystal'. (Photo by M. L. Hackert)
[Young crystallographers] Participants in the 'Young crystallographers' panel.

Following coffee Jenny Glusker talked on the history of crystallography, including very early speculation (e.g. by Robert Hooke, 1665) that the regularity of crystal forms must imply a regular arrangement of the internal constituents. Of course the history of crystallography since the discovery of X-ray diffraction is more familiar to most of us, and Jenny took us through the usual highlights in a most professional manner. Immediately after this there was a session entitled 'Talented young crystallographers of the world' chaired by freelance science writer Philip Ball. In his introductory remarks Philip dipped into history a few times – he showed William Bragg and Max von Laue together at a Solvay Conference in Brussels in 1913 (however national rivalries were apparent at that time), mentioned the history of success of women crystallographers (for example Hodgkin, Lonsdale, Franklin), and remarked on a recent high-resolution study (Umena et al., Nature, 2011) that throws light on the splitting of water at the membrane-protein complex photosystem 2. Then eight 'talented young crystallographers' – not all so very young and some well established – gave their presentations by pre-recorded video. They sat on stage along with a similar number of perhaps younger and less well established crystallographers, and after the videos engaged in discussion under Philip Ball as chair. They raised familiar issues – short-period funding, intense pressure on young scientists to teach and publish – as well as issues relating to lack of resources in some countries and the difficulty of pursuing unequal collaborations.

After lunch we moved from young crystallographers to a Nobel Laureate. After training as a physician, Brian Kobilka realized that crystallography would enable him to 'see' his favorite molecules. His interest is the system of message transmission through cell walls. This involves a stimulant (agonist) outside the cell, a receptor that is embedded within the membrane and a protein inside the cell wall. The protein is known as a G-protein and the receptor as a G-protein-coupled receptor. He shared the Chemistry Prize in 2012 for his high-resolution crystallographic studies of the active ternary complex comprising the agonist, the β2-AR (adrenergic, i.e. responsive to adrenaline) receptor and the G-protein. The work was challenging at every turn – extraction of complex from membrane and expression, purification and crystallisation, diffraction studies at the APS and ESRF, and the need for tricks such as the use of antibodies to stabilise the conformation. The crystallography suggests that the action of the agonist on the receptor is amplified through the membrane by the receptor geometry. The structural details of the receptors are of great pharmaceutical interest because they are often the targets for drugs. Comments were made on both the years devoted to the project, and the extent of collaboration involved.

[Russian delegation] The Russian delegation. (Photo by M. L. Hackert)

The final session on Monday was given to a review of crystallography in the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. I had not previously encountered this grouping, and am not sure of the basis for it. In opening remarks, UNESCO reiterated hopes that crystallography might provide a vehicle for promoting sustainable development, for encouraging women into science, and for north–south collaboration. The BRICS countries were represented variously by ambassadors, government science bureaucrats and crystallographic association chairs. A number of these countries appeared to be persuaded of the nexus between scientific research and economic growth – I am unsure that the Australian government is persuaded of such a link – and were increasing their investments accordingly. Brazil in particular was ramping up science support as a fraction of GDP, had 7.2 million students enrolled in tertiary education (maybe not just science), and was 13th in publication output, with increasing citation impact. This investment was considered to have enhanced activities in the petroleum industry, aerospace (3rd in world), and agriculture (Brazil now a net exporter). Brazil is also a leader in the use of bioethanol for vehicle fuel. Brazil established the first synchrotron radiation source in the southern hemisphere in 1997, and was building its second synchrotron to come on line in 2016. It was claimed Brazil has 3,000 PhD crystallographers. It will play a leading role in the recently established Latin American Crystallographic Association. South African crystallography started in 1937 in Cape Town with R. W. James (who had worked with Bragg), and then developed through his students and his students' students. It is evidently quite strong in supramolecular chemistry, but short on macromolecular crystallography, which I would attribute to lack of access to synchrotrons. India also has a good tradition in crystallography, again with an emphasis on supramolecular chemistry and crystal engineering, with some good protein crystallography but that perhaps limited by limited access to synchrotrons. I am moved to reflect that protein crystallography in Australia benefitted from good arrangements for synchrotron access well before the commissioning of the synchrotron in Melbourne. Russia has great traditions dating back to the 19th century, while China has been opening up its activities (e.g. two-way traffic of scientists) as well as constructing new facilities. Current Chinese activities encompass metal-organic-framework systems, molecular ferroelectrics, molecular nanomagnets and, in the macromolecular field, the structures of light-harvesting proteins and the SARS virus.

[John Spence] John Spence on X-ray lasers.
[Juliette Pradon] Juliette Pradon: 'Crystallographic research in the developing world'. (Photo by R. Kuzel)

On Tuesday, John Spence (Arizona State) opened with a fascinating talk on X-ray lasers and their use in crystallography. These give very short (femtosecond) pulses of great intensity. The breakthrough realisation was that while one pulse was guaranteed to destroy any crystal, the process of destruction was so slow that the pattern could be captured before this occurred. The strategy is one of 'diffract then destroy'. Data are collected by directing the X-rays through a jet containing tiny crystals. There is the possibility of obtaining X-ray patterns from single particles, such as viruses, and with this technique the phase problem might be circumvented. A current interest is the study of photosynthesis by time-resolved crystallography. Martijn Fransen (PANalytical) brought us back onto the laboratory scale with a review of the impact of (mostly powder) X-ray diffraction in the cement industry, ore analysis, pharmaceuticals, microelectronics and crystal deformation. Juliette Pradon (CCDC) spoke on research involving collaboration between CCDC and a group in the U. of Kinshasa (DRC) – this involving two-way visits of students and staff. David Bish (Indiana) and David Blake (NASA) gave an account of research carried out using the (very) portable X-ray diffraction (XRD)/X-ray fluorescence (XRF) device, developed over twenty years, and now carried on Mars by the Curiosity rover. It returned its first X-ray diffraction patterns in October 2012. The first analysis from a sand dune showed amorphous content, no hydrated minerals, no clay, feldspar, and was generally similar to the basaltic soil found on the flanks of the Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii. The second sample was from a drilling rig – this now contained both clay minerals and a hydrated mineral, bassanite. Mars is now a dry environment, but it seems it was wet in the past. The next talk was from Frank Burgäzy (Bruker) on the history of crystallographic technology. He covered X-ray tubes (first commercial tube produced by Siemens just three months after Roentgen's discovery), optics, detectors and software. The latest laboratory X-ray source is based on a liquid metal jet, as a means to overcome the problem of power dissipation. The final talk in the pre-coffee session was from Philippe Walter (CNRS, Paris) on the applications of X-ray diffraction in the study of art and historical artefacts. The approaches are to take a very tiny sample, when permissible, for evaluation at a synchrotron, or to take a portable X-ray diffractometer (cf. the Mars probe) to the painting or artefact of interest. The studies of art depend on the fact that most pigments are crystalline – e.g. PbCrO4 commonly used for yellow. The composition and shapes of crystallites can be analyzed with diffraction to reveal such things as the fact that da Vinci used 2 µm layers of glaze. The methods can be used to check authenticity, trace the trade in pigments and assist in conservation. I derived some personal satisfaction in seeing that quantitative phase analysis, via the Rietveld method applied to X-ray powder patterns, in the development of which I played some personal part (Hill & Howard, J. Appl. Cryst., 1987), was showing up in the laboratory (Fransen), on Mars (Bish) and even in the world of art (Walter).

After coffee, we moved gently from the study of art to art itself, namely Islamic art, firstly in the hands of Abdelmalek Thalal (Marrakech) and Emil Makovicky (Copenhagen). Certain Islamic art is strong on the symmetries of constellations and of periodic tilings. Many of the tilings have symmetries that can be identified with the plane groups that are reported in our International Tables. There are also instances of quasi-periodic tilings with five- or ten-fold motifs. Certain architectural features show an 'under and over' character and are better described using layer groups (with which I am not familiar). Makovicky showed examples of mistakes in periodic tilings, amounting to twin boundaries and the like – maybe not so surprising if one considers that there would be many workmen involved in the process. Peter Lu (Harvard) gave the final rather mathematical account of Islamic tilings. The building blocks of quasi-periodic Islamic architecture are, he claimed, the five Girih tiles, as appear in the Topkapi scroll. Peter indicated a connection of Girih with Penrose tiles, and finally a connection to the Fibonacci sequence. Fascinating stuff, but it would take me much more time to digest it.

[IUCr stand] Visitors to the IUCr stand, manned by Jonathan Agbenyega, Mike Hoyland and Peter Strickland. (Photo by M. L. Hackert)

This brought us close to the end of the meeting. Samar Hasnain (Liverpool), Editor-in-Chief of IUCr journals, gave an account of the role of those journals in the international development of crystallography. There followed a talk by Chris Llewellyn Smith (Oxford) on the development in Jordan of an international synchrotron source, SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East). Chris had been Director at CERN, and I learned that CERN had been set up after WW2 by UNESCO in an effort to encourage cooperation between previously warring nations as well as to further science. SESAME will be a 2.5 GeV third-generation light source. The current members are Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. The dual purposes of encouraging cooperation between warring nations and furthering science are evident. Maciej Nalecz (UNESCO Basic Sciences) gave a short closing speech.

All in all, an interesting day and a half, and I think worth the hours of travel involved. As to the International Year of Crystallography itself, it behooves us all to try to make it a success. A number of activities have been planned to celebrate the International Year of Crystallography; contact the organizers of these projects if you wish to help out with any of these activities at

Chris Howard
Footnote: Another excellent comprehensive review of the opening in Paris, written by Carl Schwalbe, the editor of the BCA newsletter, appeared in the spring edition of Crystallography News.
2 May 2014