Familiar to all in gemstones, glittering snowflakes or grain of salt, crystals are everywhere in nature, fascinating people by their beauty and mystery. Though the process of crystallizing sugar was known to the ancient Indian and Chinese civilisations, their existence in popular imagination is primarily due to claims of crystal-ball gazers and crystal therapists. The modern science of crystallography started 100 years ago, when Max von Laue won the Nobel prize for the discovery that crystals could diffract X-rays in 1914 and the father-son duo of William Henry, William Lawrence Bragg shared it a year later for what is now called the Bragg’s Law in physics.
Since this discovery, crystallography — the science that examines the arrangement of atoms in solids — has become the very core of structural science. It has revealed the structure of DNA, allowed us to understand and fabricate computer memories, showed us how proteins are created in cells and helped scientists to design powerful new materials and drugs. It permeates our daily lives and forms the backbone of industries which increasingly rely on knowledge generation to develop products in widely diverse fields such as agro-food, aeronautics, automobiles, cosmetics and computers.
Today, crystallography underpins all of the sciences. A total of 28 Nobel prized discoveries, including this year’s awards for chemistry and physics, have been associated with it. The launching of 2014 as the International Year of Crystallography by the United Nations will help increase public awareness about it by commemorating auspicious crystallography accolades. It will also provide a platform to address post-2015 development issues such as food security, safe drinking water, health care and sustainable energy with crystallography.