About a year ago I sat in the Members’ Room at the Royal Society as Professor Judith Howard FRS, once a doctoral student of Dorothy Hodgkin’s, explained how crystallographers worked in the early days. She showed me how Dorothy would begin by calibrating the black circles in an X-ray diffraction pattern by eye, to begin the long process of assembling from the shadows cast by an X-ray beam the complex three-dimensional arrangement of atoms in the molecule. Hanging on the wall outside was a Henry Moore drawing of Dorothy’s arthritic hands , the hands she said she thought with.
What intrigued me in seeing the combination of skills she needed, not only mathematics but hand and eye co-ordination and vision to work out how the thousand atoms in say the Vitamin B12 molecule fitted together. It was somewhere between chess and Rubik cube- a giant jigsaw puzzle where she couldn’t see the picture, or even all the pieces. Continue reading