Uncovering the hidden history of an ‘unbelievably beautiful science’

8 Jan 2018

Irish scientist Dr Claire Murray at Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire. Image: Sean Dillow

Crystallographer Dr Claire Murray tells Elaine Burke how she found her love for art through science, and unearthed untold stories on the way.

“I always loved maths in school. I was never any good at art,” Dr Claire Murray tells me of her early school days. Such was her disconnect with art, she actually rued the moment the teacher switched to that subject in class.

Progressing to second-level education, a love of maths and science evolved into a passion for chemistry. Outside of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), Murray also loved learning Spanish and was determined to fuse the two in further study. Perfect for her, then, was the decision to do a master’s in chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, with a year in Spain.

It was in Spain that Murray found her true science love: crystallography. She started to dabble in this discipline of examining the atomic and molecular structure of crystals and quickly came to adore it.

“I think it is an unbelievably beautiful science,” said Murray, quickly adding: “I would say it’s the most beautiful science but there would probably be fights!”

Restoring Rembrandt

And so, the young pupil who hated art now finds herself delving deep into one of the most aesthetically pleasing sciences there is at Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire. In fact, one of Murray’s current projects involves the work of one of the art world’s great masters.

Murray is part of a team at Diamond that has been given a tiny segment of a Rembrandt painting for analysis. “What we want to try and understand is what happened to the painting,” Murray explained.

‘Before you start thinking about treating a master painting like this, you need to understand the structure’

Rembrandt’s Homer is believed to have survived an earthquake and fire in Messina in 1738, and this embattled artwork is in need of retouching. Only so much is known about the materials in the painting – not just its finished, painted surface, but the layers accumulated over time, as well as what may be hidden beneath the masterpiece.

“Obviously, when Rembrandt painted the painting, he daubed down lots of different layers. And then, if you use x-rays, you can actually slice down through all of those layers and look at how they’ve changed. So you can see that, for example, lots of sulphur has started to work its way down into the layers – and that could have come from the bonfire, some of the noxious gases that might have been around. It could also have come from treatments,” said Murray.

Treating the painting – either for restoration or preservation – necessitates knowing everything that is embedded on the canvas. And so, the team of art conservationists in the Netherlands responsible for the piece enlisted the help of the scientists at Diamond.

“Before you start thinking about treating a master painting like this … you need to understand the structure, you need to understand where all of the elements are, what material, what form they’re in,” Murray explained. “Otherwise, you could actually just cause a chemical reaction that would melt the whole painting off.”

Murray became part of this project due to her expertise in interpreting crystallography, which she is now using to inform the art world of the secrets within Rembrandt’s work.

Project M

Murray’s proudest project to date at Diamond, however, has been Project M. Devised as a reason to put a giant robotic instrument through its paces, Murray and her colleague, Julia Parker, solicited samples from schools across the UK and analysed them in a 24-hour marathon that was live-streamed and live-tweeted. “We actually broke Twitter,” she said. “Twitter thought that we were a bot – which we were, technically!”

Project M used samples of calcium carbonate, a substance that appears in nature as one of three polymorphs: calcite, aragonite or vaterite. (Polymorphs are variants of the same substance with different crystal structures.)

As it turns out, synthesising calcium carbonate is part of the science curriculum in UK secondary schools, and that’s how Murray hit upon the idea of collecting 1,000 samples from 100 schools nationwide (and why the M in Project M stands for the Roman numeral).

In the end, the number wasn’t exactly 1,000, but there are still many contributors to the project and Murray wants to ensure every one of them gets their credit on the resulting paper.

Students from Cheltenham College completing their experiments for Project M, a large-scale school citizen science project. Image: Cheltenham College Chemistry Department/Twitter

Students from Cheltenham College completing their experiments for Project M, a large-scale school citizen-science project. Image: Cheltenham College Chemistry Department/Twitter

Revisiting history

Like any good crystallographer, Murray is not one to simply skim the surface of an interest, and she has delved deep into the history and origins of her chosen discipline. “The science is actually only 100 years old,” she told me, before launching into the cornerstone work of German physicist Max von Laue and the father-son duo of William Henry and William Lawrence Bragg.

Something that delighted Murray in her exploration of crystallography’s history was discovering that William Henry Bragg started out with a team of seven men and 11 women – a gender ratio the history of science is not largely known for. Another factor of note is the crucial role of three Irish scientists in furthering crystallography. Firstly, there’s John Desmond Bernal, from whom the University of Limerick’s Bernal Institute gets its name. Then there’s Kathleen Lonsdale, an idol of Murray’s and a pioneering woman in science. And, finally, there’s Helen Megaw, a little-known but mightily influential scientist in this field.

A student of Bernal’s, Megaw was one of the first crystallographers to determine the structure of key perovskites, offering vital knowledge for the development of solar energy and modern electronics. Megaw was also instrumental in showcasing both the art and science of crystallography at the Festival of Britain, a post-war exhibition visited by millions in 1951.

What disturbs Murray is how poorly these stories of influential women of science history are disseminated. There was no secondary-school textbook in Ireland bearing Lonsdale’s or Megaw’s name when she was in school. Discovering this rich history for herself was inspiring, but disheartening, too, to know that the next generation of potential scientists may not be aware of the role models that reflect them.

It was this information gap that Murray and friends Jess Wade, Laurie Tobin and Becky Douglas planned to bridge with a poster campaign. They started with Irish women scientists, ensuring to also provide an Irish-language version. Then came the wonder-women of Wales, followed by the Scottish science sisters. Posters for Spain and Poland were also in progress when we chatted last September.

Striking a balance in science

In Irish academia, a recent commitment to gender diversity came with the introduction of the Athena SWAN Charter and a Higher Education Authority requirement for institutions to have at least 40pc women representation across the board or risk losing their State funding. Murray said Ireland has been “really, really brave” in this stance, but she also expressed concern. “What I don’t know is, is the system and structure there to support that [requirement]?”

Murray knows from her own experience as a judge for Athena SWAN applications that the criteria are rigorous. This is no mere box-ticking exercise. To qualify, an institute must demonstrate much more than a headcount of senior women but a complete and comprehensive system for sustainable progress towards gender parity.

“What Athena SWAN is trying to do is make sure that the whole system is as level as can be, that there are no barriers that stop people, and there are some really interesting ideas coming out of it,” she said. For example, Murray explained, seeing how institutes have better managed maternity leave by excusing women returning to work from teaching duties (on top of their research workload) could also lead to reform for returners from paternity leave or sick leave.

In all, these changes could improve work-life balance across academia for all. “I think things like this are really important to think about, because we’re dealing with people here, we’re not dealing with robots, and that’s something that people forget,” said Murray.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.