ISIS features in Max Alexander’s exhibition ‘Illuminating Atoms’

Friday 21 November 2014

ISIS Physicist, Dr David Keen

ISIS Physicist, Dr David Keen, next to a neutron diffraction pattern of a quartz crystal drawn in the sand
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From snowflakes to grains of salt, diamonds to proteins, crystals are found everywhere in nature. Throughout history people have been intrigued by their beauty and symmetry. 2014 marks the International Year of Crystallography, to celebrate 100 years since the discovery that X-rays (and later, neutrons) can be used to ‘see’ inside matter. In the 100 years since its discovery, crystallography has seen great progress in the study of materials, leading to advances in all scientific disciplines.

The International Year of Crystallography is coming to an end, and to celebrate the technique photographer Max Alexander is presenting a selection of photographs that depict crystallography experiments and the personalities that work in the field in his exhibition ‘Illuminating Atoms’. Sponsored by STFC, Diamond Light Source, GSK, Astra Zeneca, Pharmorphix and the Wellcome Trust, the exhibition highlights the world class facilities that utilise this technique, and the scientists at the forefront of crystallographic research.

Max says “My mission was essentially to connect the public to this astonishing scientific technique. Crystallography has been hugely significant throughout the 20th Century, and crystallographers continue to make a real contribution to society through their work. It’s something I wanted people to know about, and I’ve endeavoured to tell that story in a beautiful and engaging way.”

“Crystallography is very much a field of science that lends itself to an artistic approach. It’s not just about pattern recognition.”

When X-rays or neutrons hit an object, the atoms within the object scatter the beam in different directions. A diffraction pattern is created from the scattering, and this can be used to identify the structure of a sample at the atomic scale. Crystallography allows us to examine the arrangement of atoms in solids, and this knowledge can be utilised to modify a material’s properties and behaviour.

The exhibition comes in two categories; portrait and documentary photography. The portrait images depict some of the scientists who work at the cutting edge of this field, whilst the documentary images convey the rich diversity of science that involves crystallography. Max adds “Aspects of science can be very difficult to understand but if you can find simple ideas and use those concepts to get those across, that helps to connect the public. Scientists are very creative people; to draw this creativity out of them helps reconnect the science to the public. Making that connection is paramount to what I do.”

Of the 37 images showcased in the exhibition, one features ISIS physicist and President of the British Crystallographic Association, Dr David Keen. David was pictured in Porthcawl beach in South Wales where precisely 641 holes were dug in the sand to portray the neutron diffraction pattern of a quartz crystal, a common component of sand. David says “Most of us do not realise the huge impact of crystallography on our lives and Max’s portraits communicate the subject in a different way.  For my photo not only did I enjoy the reaction from the people on the beach, but I hope that the idea of creating a neutron diffraction pattern from a quartz crystal with holes in quartz sand is thought-provoking.”

Max says “These [scientists] are people working at the cutting edge of science. The impact they have across all number of sciences is little known.”

ISIS has a strong presence in the exhibition. Also featured was instrument scientist Dr Sam Callear in front of the powder diffractometer Polaris. Sam is using crystallography to study the interaction between drug molecules and their surroundings, and the effect of hydrogen and methane gas on various chemical compounds. Max photographed engineers maintaining the ISIS WISH diffractometer, which is used for neutron-crystallography experiments. WISH is a long wavelength diffractometer that consists of a large array of detectors that encircle the sample. It is used for studying exotic superconducting materials and their magnetic arrangements. Engin-X instrument scientist Dr Shu Yan Zhang was also included in the exhibition, photographed during a crystallography experiment. She is shown aligning a turbocharger from a lorry engine using a touch probe.

Max concludes “Crystallography is a process in which art and science overlap. But while it has achieved a great deal in science, it is very much an unsung story.”

Illuminating Atoms is open until 7th December 2014 at the Royal Albert Hall. More information can be found here

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