A Beginner’s Guide To X-Ray Crystallography

In graduate school, I had a seminar course where one of the sections was about X-ray crystallography. I was excited, because being able to discern the three-dimensional structure of macromolecules just by shining X-rays on them seemed like magic to me. And thanks to a lackluster professor, after the section it remained just as much of a mystery.

If only I’d had [Steve Mould] as a teacher back then. His latest video does an outstanding job explaining X-ray crystallography by scaling up the problem considerably, using the longer wavelength of light and a macroscopic target. He begins with a review of diffraction patterns, those alternating light and dark bands of constructive and destructive interference that result when light shines on two closely spaced slits — the famous “Double-Slit Experiment” that showed light behaves both as a particle and as a wave and provided our first glimpse of quantum mechanics. [Steve] then doubled down on the double-slit, placing another pair of slits in the path of the first. This revealed a grid of spots rather than alternating bands, with the angle between axes dependent on the angle of the slit pairs to each other.


To complete the demonstration, [Steve] then used diffraction to image the helical tungsten filament of an incandescent light bulb. Shining a laser through the helix resulted in a pattern bearing a striking resemblance to what’s probably the most famous X-ray crystallogram ever: [Rosalind Franklin]’s portrait of DNA. It all makes perfect sense, and it’s easy to see how the process works when scaled down both in terms of the target size and the wavelength of light used to probe it.

Hats off to [Steve] for making something that’s ordinarily complex so easily understandable, and for filling in a long-standing gap in my knowledge.

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