"Crystals and Life: A Personal Journey"
Reading history and reviews
Finished on 15th December 2009This is a collection of some of Abad-Zapatero's previously published essays and articles on the subject of protein crystallography (that is, the determination of the arrangement of atoms within proteins by crystallising them and then subjecting the resulting protein crystals to X-rays).
Since it's a collection, the writing can sometime vary quite dramatically in both tone and level of detail between chapters, but it does cover a lot of ground: from the history of crystal classification, the fundamentals of X-ray crystallography and the "phase problem" (essentially, the reason why crystallography is hard), through both the proliferation of synchrotrons as sources of powerful X-rays and the innovations in software that have enabled the investigation of ever-more complex proteins.
Abad-Zapatero's career has coincided with many advances in technology and techniques that have transformed the field, and some of these are covered in the book. As someone whose experience is more recent, I found it interesting to read about protein crystallography in this earlier more pioneering age, before it became essentially a routine factory procedure (though arguably this could just be a question of perspective, and - as is suggested in the chapter about the "time crystal" - that the interesting scientific problems have simply moved elsewhere).
I think that the best pieces here have a sense of eclecticism and playfulness that that is not always communicated in science writing. Although most obvious in some of the autobiographical details (for example, selecting gypsum crystals containing fossilised sea urchins as Christmas presents for his children), throughout there is an almost child-like sense of curiosity coupled with the desire to explore connections not just within science but also with the worlds of art, music and philosophy. For me these connections were the most stimulating, and with which "life" in the book's title transcended its obvious literal interpretation (proteins being the biological building blocks of life) to refer instead to a much broader and deeper idea of how we experience, understand and take pleasure in being part of this world.