Episode 3: To Break Into Pieces

Broadcast date: Friday 6 June 2014, 4.30pm GMT (repeats at 7pm GMT Saturday, 7 June) on Resonance 104.4 FM.

X-ray crystallographers make the invisible structures of atoms in matter visible. But in order to do so, they must transform their subject matter into a nearly indecipherable code – this is the process of X-ray diffraction. Diffraction, from the Latin for ‘to break into pieces’, is central to a crystallographer’s process of translating from the invisible to the visible. To access the internal structure of a crystal, crystallographers shoot a beam of X-rays through it, and when they hit the atoms inside, these X-rays diffract: they split apart and spread out before reaching a photographic detector on the other side.

This episode explores the ways in which breaking something into pieces can help to understand it, from the story of crystallographer Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray diffraction photograph that revealed the DNA double helix, to artist and academic Lina Hakim on what breaking toys apart has in common with crystallography, and the work of composer Margaret Schedel who is experimenting with new ways for scientists to understand X-ray data more deeply – by using their ears.


X-ray diffraction photograph of an enzyme of the SARS virus, by Jeff Dahl.

When X-ray crystallographers pass a beam of X-rays through a crystal, these X-rays leave a pattern on the other side, creating a diffraction photograph like the one above. In this episode, you’ll hear sound designer Sam Conran translation of the photograph above – as well as a diffraction photo of quasi crystals (which you can see here) – into sound.

Find out more about this week’s contributors:

Lina Hakim: www.matchboxflight.com

Sam Conran: www.samconran.com

Margaret Schedel: schedel.net

A paper on Margaret Schedel’s Hidden Nano-Structures project, featured on this episode, is available here. Her new duo for violin, cello and interactive electronics will be performed Saturday July 12 at 8pm at Delaware Valley College, Life Sciences Building Auditorium.