International Year of Crystallography launched at UNESCO

“Our message is – dare I say – crystal clear,” observed UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova with a smile, in her opening remarks to a packed auditorium at UNESCO headquarters in Paris on 20 January 2014.

“Crystallography is essential to sustainable development, to tackling global challenges in food, in water, in the environment, in energy, in health,” she said. “It is by understanding the basic forms of matter that we can transform it for the better, develop new materials, design new drugs against diseases, improve water quality.”

Eight hundred people had come to UNESCO to hear her message and that of the 30 or so other speakers taking the floor for the official launch of the International Year of Crystallography. The event is hosted by UNESCO, which is leading the Year on behalf of the United Nations, in collaboration with the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr).

Like most basic sciences, crystallography tends to be much less known to the general public than its applications in industries as diverse as agrifood, pharmaceuticals, aeronautics, new materials and mining.

“Few people know that many Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry are really about Crystallography,” the Director-General remarked.

In 2012, for example, Professor Brian Kobilka received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry “for his studies of G-protein-coupled receptors.” He spoke of his research at the launch, explaining that cells have small receivers known as receptors, some of which are able to receive hormones. In the 1980s, he identified the gene that regulates the formation of the receptor for adrenalin. It was later discovered that there is an entire family of receptors that look and act in similar ways, known as G-protein-coupled receptors. About half of all medications used today make use of this kind of receptor.

“Development needs innovation and, in most cases, scientific innovation needs crystallography,” the Director-General went on to say… ‘We need governments to recognize the power of crystallography, to craft sharper policies and to invest in research and networks − especially in developing countries. This effort concerns everyone, including the private sector. We must strengthen international cooperation, build regional coalitions for innovation… We need to share technologies and expertise, in order to strengthen capacities in developing countries…”

At present, crystallographers are active in only about 80 countries. Claude Lecomte, Vice-President of the IUCr, told the auditorium about an IUCr initiative to develop crystallography in Africa. The programme trains teaching staff and PhD students in crystallography. It also provides participating countries with diffractometers, the basic equipment for performing crystallography, graciously supplied by Bruker France. Claude Lecomte ran a course at the University of Dschang in Cameroon, in 2012. The next countries to benefit from the programme will be Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon and Senegal.

Over the coming year, another project will be mounted to build capacity in crystallography not only in Africa but also in Asia and Latin America. UNESCO and the International Union of Crystallography will be running open laboratories in more than a dozen developing countries throughout 2014, in partnership with private manufacturers of diffractometers. These Open Labs will demonstrate how a diffractometer works to university students and their professors in Algeria, Argentina, China, the Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Ghana, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Pakistan, Uruguay and Vietnam. In Morocco, the laboratory will even take to the road.

The Open Labs project was particularly welcomed by the young scientists participating in a roundtable on 20 January. Moderator Philip Ball invited the 15 young scientists to express their views as to the main obstacles they felt they had to overcome.

Anders Madsen from Denmark recalled that identifying a new structure demanded years of effort. Yet researchers were obliged to apply regularly for funding to keep their projects going, he said. Young scientists, in particular, suffered from the ‘publish or perish’ diktat, which drove them to publish scientific papers on a regular basis to establish their credentials, even though their research was still ongoing.

Adriana Serquis from Argentina regretted the lack of access for young scientists to ‘big-science’ installations like the synchrotron source in Brazil.

Mohamed Eddaoudi from Saudi Arabia felt that crystallography should be recognized as an independent body of science, rather than simply as a tool.

Next to take the floor was Yvon Bibila from Côte d’Ivoire. He observed that his research thesis had taken him a decade to complete, owing to a lack of equipment and the isolation of researchers. His own university had to apply to renew research funding on a monthly basis, he said. When funding was tight, researchers tended to dip into their own pockets to ensure the continuity of their research.

Marcin Nowotny from Poland added an optimistic note. Fifteen years ago, Poland had been a developing country, he said, with just two crystallographic centres. Thanks to cooperation with Germany and other forms of support, Poland had now largely caught up to other European countries.

If there was one thing the young scientists all underscored, it was the value of international co-operation, both between North and South and between countries of the South. The main criterion for cooperation, they said, was complementarity among the partners. Any joint research project had to be a win−win proposal to be of interest.

In the afternoon, a session was devoted especially to the emerging economies of Brazil, the Russian Federation, India, China and South Africa.

The launch of the International Year of Crystallography continued on 21 January. The day began with a series of lectures on the contribution that crystallography makes to society and the future. One session which captured the imagination was devoted to “identifying habitable environments on Mars”. NASA scientist David Bish explained how it had taken 20 years to develop CheMin, a miniature X-ray diffraction instrument (the original instrument weighed 550 kg!). Designed to analyse soil samples on Mars, CheMin had to be small enough to fit in the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in August 2012. CheMin has discovered clay minerals in some drilled rocks, indicating that they formed in water.

This technical prowess has paved the way to the development of commercial portable diffractometers, which have become tools of the trade for specialists in different fields. A geologist, for example, can use a portable diffractometer to analyse mineral samples at an isolated location, or in mineral, oil and gas exploration.

An archeologist can study artefacts directly at the site where they were excavated. An art expert can analyse in situ the pigments in a museum painting – in order to check its authenticity, for example – or on the walls of a prehistoric cave.

Philippe Walter’s presentation on the use of ‘mobile laboratories’ to study cultural heritage made for a nice transition to the next session, in which Abdelmalek Thalal, Emil Makovicky and Peter Lu explored different aspects of art and architecture from the Islamic Golden Age. They explained that this Golden Age was marked by a highly stylized form of art involving complex geometrical patterns with a high degree of symmetry… one of the hallmarks of crystals.

The last session was devoted to the theme of crystallography and peace. What better example than the SESAME project, which is building a regional research centre in Jordan known as Synchrotron Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME)? UNESCO has played a pivotal role in this project since its inception more than a decade ago. At the launch, Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, Chair of the SESAME Council and former Director-General of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), reported on progress, confirming that the SESAME centre was on track to being fully operational by 2016.