History of Science Museum: Collection Database Search

Narratives

Exhibition Label: Crystals: Beauty, Science, Structure (07 Nov 2013 - 30 Mar 2014) - use of models and modelling

From Geometry to Atoms

Models have been used to visualise crystalline structures for hundreds of years. The impact of X-ray crystallography is dramatized by the creation of new types of crystal model.

In the 19th century, most crystal models illustrated geometry. Popular for teaching the subject, they depicted external shapes and helped in the identification of the characteristic forms of naturally-occurring minerals.

X-ray crystallography revealed the precise positions of atoms, enabling models which represented the inner structure of a material. Model-making was vital both for exploring possile atomic and molecular arrangements in research and also as a way of displaying successfully determined structures.

Modelling is now usually done on computers, particuarly for highly complex organic molecules. But sometimes the manipulation of a three dimensional object in the hand can reveal insights more easily missed on screen.

A computer model of sodium bromate, displayed below.

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