This year is the UNESCO International Year of Crystallography (IYCr). And today – August 12th – is the last day of the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr) Congress and General Assembly being held in Montreal where more than 2,500 crystallographers from around the world have gathered to discuss the latest results, methods and analyses. The Congress is a bit like the Olympics for crystal scientists. It’s held every 3 years, and bidding to host the event is fierce. The 2017 Congress will be held in Hyderabad, and – just announced today – the 2020 Congress will be held in Prague. I hope I can make it to both!

The UNESCO 2014 IYCr is an exciting time for crystallographers. There are so many things to celebrate: recent centenaries including those of the first evidence of diffraction of X-rays from a crystal in 1912 (by von Laue, Friedrich and Knipping), the derivation in 1912 of the equation relating planes of atoms in a crystal with the X-ray diffraction pattern (by Lawrence Bragg – hence Bragg’s Law) that led to the first crystal structure determination in 1913 (by Lawrence Bragg and his father William Bragg), the first Nobel prizes to crystallographers (von Laue in 1914, father and son Bragg team in 1915). It’s a source of special pride in Australia that Lawrence Bragg, born and raised in Adelaide, the first Australian Nobel Prize winner, also holds the record for being the youngest ever Nobel Prize winner (he was just 25).

To help mark IYCr there have been ceremonies, stamps, coins (well 1/5th of a coin), sculptures, crystal blogs, photo competitions, videos and public lectures. But you don’t have to go global, or even national, to enjoy crystallography or to learn more about this fascinating science. This year, the Martin lab has gone crystal with its birthday cakes. On the suggestion of Dr Gordon King in the team, we decided to make our birthday cakes crystal-themed. And we chose to celebrate not just our own birthdays but also those of crystallography pioneers. I’d like to share with you 4 of the 15 amazing #crystalcake creations we have enjoyed to date.

Sodium Chloride #crystalcake by Dr Róisín McMahon

First up was Dame Kathleen Lonsdale – her 101st birthday was celebrated on Jan 28th. Dame Lonsdale was a fascinating person: born in Ireland, the last-born of a family of 10 children, she became the first woman Fellow of the Royal Society (1945), and the first woman Professor at University College London (1949). She was also “a committed pacifist and served time in Holloway prison during the Second World War because she refused to register for civil defence duties or pay a fine for refusing to register“. Lonsdale worked with William Bragg, who actively promoted women in science. Indeed, in her own wordsIn 1929 my first baby came and I found it rather difficult to do everything in the home and also find time for ‘Arbeit’ (research); so I wrote to W.H.B. (Bragg senior) and he persuaded the Managers of the Royal Institution to give me a grant of £50 for one year with which to hire a daily domestic helper. Her name was Mrs. Snowball (it really was!) and, with her to wash and clean, I managed to care for the baby, cook and continue the structure analysis of C6Cl6.


Sodium chloride crystal structure #crystalcake, designed and made by Dr Roisin McMahon

Gordon King, our #crystalcakes MC, noted “Her work included studies on the crystal structures of hexamethyl benzene (1929) and diamond (1944). Her paper on the structure of diamond (Nature 1944 Vol 153 No3892 p669) finishes with this interesting paragraph: “In some ways the problem of diamond is like a crossword puzzle.  We have clues, but in some cases we do not know the solution; in other cases there seem to be more than one possible solution.  But as Sir William Bragg said many years ago: “There is no cross-word puzzle that can compare in interest with the practical working out of a problem in Physics or Chemistry.  You may say that to work at an amusing thing is not a very noble task.  I can only answer that it makes a very happy life and I think that, if we can increase the number of human beings who find happiness in their work, we shall have gone some way towards creating a better state of things”.

Seems a pity that scientific journals don’t allow musings like this in the discussion any more.

Electron density #crystalcake by Dr Premkumar Lakshmanane


Electron density chocolate #crystalcake, designed and made by Dr Premkumar Lakshmanane

On June 1, we celebrated the birthday of Helen Megaw. Helen, like Kathleen Lonsdale, was born in Ireland, and her career spanned several decades and several countries and laboratories. She is credited with contributing crystallographic images used in art. “Her electron-density contour map of afwillite inspired both textiles and wallpapers.” Not to mention her Martin lab birthday #crystalcake. Helen received many honours in recognition of her research on the structure of ice and minerals. For example, she was the first woman to be awarded the Roebling Medal of the Mineralogical Society of America (in 1989, when she was 82). And according to Wikipedia, she has an island and a mineral named after her.

Ribosome #crystalcake by Dr Maria Halili


Ribosome #crystalcake, featuring the 50S and 30S subunits, and made from chocolate cake, fondant, chocolate sweets, licorice and marshmallow. Designed and made by Dr Maria Halili

Ada Yonath, born in Israel on June 29 1939, shared the Nobel prize for Chemistry in 2009 with Venki Ramakrishnan and Tom Steitz for work on the structure of ribosome, the molecular machine that reads RNA and translates that information into the biosynthesis of proteins. Her research began in Dec 1979 and took many years to come to fruition. Ada persisted, and achieved her goal, despite advice from others including this is a dead end road’, and ‘you will be dead before you get there’. 

Photo 51 #crystalcake by Dr Wilko Duprez

Rosalind Franklin was born in London on July 25, 1920.

Photo 51 #crystalcake created from lime tart, Raffaelo, chocolate sweets, cocoa and icing sugar. Designed and made by Dr Wilko Duprez just a few weeks after his PhD was awarded.

Photo 51 #crystalcake created from lime tart, Raffaelo, chocolate sweets, cocoa and icing sugar. Designed and made by Dr Wilko Duprez just a few weeks after his PhD was awarded.

She died tragically young, at the age of 38. Martin lab celebrated what would have been her 94th birthday a few weeks ago, with a #crystalcake representing her famous photo 51. This diffraction image of DNA, described by JD Bernal as the most beautiful X-ray photograph of any substance ever taken, and more recently as the most important photograph ever, led to the molecular description of DNA – the blueprint of life. Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel prize for the structure of DNA. Rosalind Franklin’s untimely death meant she missed out.

There’s a bit of a theme

Yes, it’s true. I have focused on women crystallographer #crystalcakes in this post. They have such wonderful stories to tell. And that’s even without the Dorothy Hodgkin #crystalcake. Crystallography has a rich tradition of women pioneers, though perhaps less so in recent times. One might wonder what has changed recently. Perhaps there are clues to be found in the stories of Lonsdale, Megaw, Yonath and Franklin.

In any case, there are plenty more #crystalcakes to come this year, and plenty more stories to discover.

**updated on 15th Aug with corrected dates**