Object: Crystal Garden
Story: As a child, in the 1950s, encouraged by my father I set about making a crystal garden in a jam-jar. The brilliance of the colours and feathery forms of the crystals was probably one of my first experiences of chemistry and the sense of wonder has stayed with me through the years.
Who was to know that much later, in my twenties, I would find myself in a laboratory at the University of Oxford, growing crystals as part of my job. My aim was to grow a crystal of rabbit troponin C, a key protein vital in muscle contraction. With a crystal, chemists can work out the structure of very complex molecules such as proteins and find out much about how they operate in the body.
Amazingly after only a few months of working on this project, one morning, on examining my tubes of solution, I discovered the first ever recorded crystal of rabbit troponin C glistening in the bright morning light. It was a spectacular crystal and you can see a photograph of it published in Nature (Mercola, D., Bullard, B., and Priest, J., Nature Vol. 254 p 634-635 April 17 1975).
Dorothy Hodgkin, who had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1964) for her work on the use of crystals to discover the structure of biological molecules using X-ray diffraction, just happened to be in the department that morning. To my intense pride, she came and looked down my microscope at the precious crystal!
For fun last week I made a crystal garden once again and have included some photographs with this recollection for any reader who has never made one!