Crystallography today – a modern, interdisciplinary field of research

Crystallography originally developed from the study of the morphology and anisotropy of physical properties of crystals of naturally occurring minerals. Accordingly, crystallography in Central Europe was initially closely linked to earth sciences. After the discovery of X-ray diffraction by Max von Laue (1912), the elucidation of the atomic structure of crystallised matter became a major concern of crystallography. As a result, chemists became the main users of crystallographic methods. In the last two decades, biocrystallography in particular has recorded enormous growth rates in the analysis of biologically relevant macromolecules (viruses, proteins, etc.) and in the design of new drugs. Less spectacular but with noticeable consequences for our daily lives was the development in practical research. Modern methods of growing and characterization have made high quality large single crystals of various available substances, which are indispensable in many areas of technology today. These include applications in semiconductor electronics, optoelectronics and ultrasonic technology, as well as in solid-state lasers and radiation detectors, as optical memories, magnets or piezoelectric displacement transducers and sensors.

Due to the rapid developments in almost all areas, the borders to neighbouring disciplines such as solid state physics, chemistry, earth and material sciences as well as biology and pharmacy are becoming increasingly fluid. Just a few years ago, it was at least possible to claim that crystallography is defined by the objects under investigation, but this is increasingly rare today. Crystallographic methods are applied to thin films, aperiodic crystals (quasi-crystals) and amorphous substances (e.g. glasses, polymers).

Today, crystallography is a field of research with an interdisciplinary character unlike almost any other field. What is special about this is the holistic view of the materials examined. The physicist may be interested in the physical properties of a crystal or in a special effect, the chemist is interested in the synthesis, reactions and chemical bonds of molecules and the materials scientist studies and models e.g. the real structure, microstructure and properties of these substances. From the crystallographer’s point of view, however, these aspects represent only different facets of the same object called a crystal. It attempts to obtain a uniform picture of the correlations between the chemical composition, structure and properties of a material.

The numerous facets of modern crystallographic research are also reflected in the diversity of contributions to national and international conferences. The following figure shows the number of pages of corresponding contributions in the conference proceedings (Acta Crystallogr. A52, 1996, supplement) of the last conference of the International Union of Crystallography (IUCR-XVI, Seattle, 1996).