What the hell is Reciprocal Space?

It’s the name of this blog. But why?

Well, in Web2.0-land, a blog (can you hear my teeth grinding?) is quintessentially a space for the reciprocation of views, the exchange of ideas.

So far, so good, but the title is also a rather cheesy crystallographic pun because reciprocal space is a real thing. Well, actually it’s a weird, imaginary thing, a mathematical construct used by X-ray crystallographers to interpret the diffraction patterns of spots that we record from our crystals. In the crystal, the molecules are arranged in orderly rows and columns, stacked like bricks in unit cells. The orderliness is the key to strong scattering of the X-rays in the directions allowed by a mathematical rule known as Bragg’s Law.

But if you follow the maths—that damnable white rabbit—it takes you down a hole and before you know it you are in reciprocal space, where it is the spots of the diffraction pattern that are arrayed in rows and columns. But all the dimensions and angles are inverted – reciprocated. Crystals with small molecules packed into small unit cells create a huge reciprocal lattice where the spots are widely separated.


A slice of reciprocal space

And, oddly enough, that’s where the book discussed in this week’s Fiction Lab comes in. As has been mentioned elsewhere, on Wednesday evening I railed against the scientific inanities of the plot of “As she crawled across the table”, a novel based on the creation, in a basement physics lab, of a portal into a parallel universe that wholly absorbed — metaphorically and sometimes literally — those who gazed into it. It was a very strange story. I hated it and yet, though I almost dare not admit it, there is a kind of resonance with my own fascination with reciprocal space.

As a protein crystallographer I make occasional visits to reciprocal space, usually to take a look at a strange entity that lurks there known as the Ewald Sphere. It’s an absorbing place. But if you make the effort to get acquainted, to get to know the angles and the curves, it will ultimately reward you with a beautiful new molecular structure. It can be hard work, but the exchange is a worthwhile one.

And such are my aspirations for this blog.

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10 Responses to What the hell is Reciprocal Space?

  1. Richard P. Grant says:

    I’m going to have to read that, aren’t I?
    Mmm. Ewald spheres.

  2. Stephen Curry says:

    Indeed. You can think of your beautiful precession camera as something that lovingly caresses the surface of the sphere…

  3. Richard P. Grant says:

    That’s a nice thought, Stephen. I’m going to have to think about that a bit more (my obscene epiboly is currently unmatched).
    Actually Stephen, I had hoped you were going to say more about the book. You’re tantalizingly hinting at something to do with reciprocal space in that context. Or is that the subject of weblog entry #3?
    (Thinks. Must write about ‘spin doctors’ and ‘reciprocal space cadets’ sometime)

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    Oh the book? Well Jenny can give you the counter-view but I found it infuriating. Alice (physicist) falls out of love with Philip (sociology prof), and apparently in love with ‘Lack’, this weird portal that has been created in the lab of Alice’s boss. I couldn’t understand Alice’s motivation and Philip kept talking and thinking in a kind of cod-physics, as if he’d once read a popular-science book on quantum mechanics and anti-matter and become besotted with the deep philosophical implications therein. Yada-yada-yada. He would come out with things like ‘I wondered if the building had an anti-building beneath it, with anti-physicists”. What!? Or elsewhere: “I could see the tension between them like an interference pattern. A bad splice.” I can’t think of a worse usage or mixing of metaphors. (I’m paraphrasing because I gave my copy away at the end of the session).
    But other people liked it. Go figure.
    Your ‘reciprocal space cadets’ reminded me of my time at the EMBL in Grenoble when I went on a synchrotron trip with my Lebanese colleague, Nicolas. Late in the wee, small hours, we dubbed ourselves ‘les photons volants’! Ah, good times.

  5. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I always find it fascinating that some readers refuse to allow the validity of characters in literature who are intended not to be noble or likable. In many book groups I’ve been in, these characters are written off as ‘bad writing’ or ‘bad craft’, when to me it seems clear that the author is trying to present a flawed creature.
    As a novelist, I think it is very easy to create characters who are noble and good. But it is a far bigger challenge to make your protagonist an irritation. I have met real people who are like Philip, humanities types mostly, who read a little bit about a lot and try to adapt themselves to these alien worlds by playing with the language, often inappropriately. I was more interested in the exploration of this than I probably would have been in a character who was not flawed. And as the book was clearly intended as satire and not to be taken so literally, I — and many others at the Fiction Lab — felt that it worked very well.

  6. Stephen Curry says:

    Yes, guilty as charged – to some extent. Perhaps I should be screaming at Philip (the character) rather that the author. But I’m sure I’ve read plenty of other books with obnoxious or flawed characters that I still enjoyed immensely (though I can’t think of a title at the moment..!). There were other things I didn’t get or like about the story; the details of the politics of research I found unconvincingly rendered. But hey, that’s just my point of view. Hope springs eternal and I am already looking forward to the next book – historical fiction is more my thing!
    And shouldn’t be be doing this on your blog?
    But I’m at Heathrow and about to cross the Atlantic so will be off line for a while. I snapped a photo for you on my way here which will make and appearance sometime soon…

  7. Maxine Clarke says:

    I daren’t ask about the relationship between reciprocal space and second life.
    I have always found reciprocal space a fascinating concept. Too fascinating for my own good, probably, as having failed to understand it to the level I wished to, I ended up married to it.

  8. Stephen Curry says:

    That’s certainly an unusual motivation for marriage…!

  9. Maxine Clarke says:

    It’s worked so far 😉

  10. Stephen Curry says:

    _I’m sure I’ve read plenty of other books with obnoxious or flawed characters that I still enjoyed immensely (though I can’t think of a title at the moment..!). _
    Thought of some (finally):

    John Self in Martin Amis’s Money
    Keith in Amis’s London Fields (Amis is good at unsympathetic characters)
    Edmond Talbot in William Golding’s Rites of Passage

    Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita (though I’m not finished that one yet – maybe I’ll start to admire the character but there’s no denying Nabokov’s fabulous prose style).