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Crystals: animal, vegetable or mineral?

Hyde ST - Interface Focus (2015)

Bottom Line: The idea that there is a clear distinction between these two classes of matter has waxed and waned in popularity through past centuries.The older picture of disjoint universes of forms is better understood as a continuum of forms, with significant overlap and common features unifying biological and inorganic matter.In addition to the philosophical relevance of this perspective, there are important ramifications for science.

View Article: PubMed Central - PubMed

Affiliation: Department of Applied Mathematics, Research School of Physics and Engineering , The Australian National University , Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200 , Australia.

ABSTRACT
The morphologies of biological materials, from body shapes to membranes within cells, are typically curvaceous and flexible, in contrast to the angular, facetted shapes of inorganic matter. An alternative dichotomy has it that biomolecules typically assemble into aperiodic structures in vivo, in contrast to inorganic crystals. This paper explores the evolution of our understanding of structures across the spectrum of materials, from living to inanimate, driven by those naive beliefs, with particular focus on the development of crystallography in materials science and biology. The idea that there is a clear distinction between these two classes of matter has waxed and waned in popularity through past centuries. Our current understanding, driven largely by detailed exploration of biomolecular structures at the sub-cellular level initiated by Bernal and Astbury in the 1930s, and more recent explorations of sterile soft matter, makes it clear that this is a false dichotomy. For example, liquid crystals and other soft materials are common to both living and inanimate materials. The older picture of disjoint universes of forms is better understood as a continuum of forms, with significant overlap and common features unifying biological and inorganic matter. In addition to the philosophical relevance of this perspective, there are important ramifications for science. For example, the debates surrounding extra-terrestrial life, the oldest terrestrial fossils and consequent dating of the emergence of life on the Earth rests to some degree on prejudices inferred from the supposed dichotomy between life-forms and the rest.

No MeSH data available.


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Image from Haeckel's book Crystal souls [53].
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RSFS20150027F6: Image from Haeckel's book Crystal souls [53].

Mentions: Liquid crystals were first observed in a class of cholesterol-based organic molecules extracted from plants by the German chemist Reinitzer in the 1880s. With the help of the physicist Lehmann, he had discovered cholesteric liquid crystals. So dramatic and life-like were the writhing figures visible in the optical microscope during the melting process, that the eminent scientist Ernst Haeckel wrote a book entitled ‘Crystal Souls—Studies of Inorganic Life’ (frontispiece reproduced in figure 6) [53]. Haeckel, like Newton before him, guided by his own mystical (and by that time largely outdated) views, was convinced that these liquid crystals contained the essence of life itself, the vital force.Figure 6.


Crystals: animal, vegetable or mineral?

Hyde ST - Interface Focus (2015)

Image from Haeckel's book Crystal souls [53].
© Copyright Policy - open-access
Related In: Results  -  Collection

License
Show All Figures
getmorefigures.php?uid=PMC4590423&req=5

RSFS20150027F6: Image from Haeckel's book Crystal souls [53].
Mentions: Liquid crystals were first observed in a class of cholesterol-based organic molecules extracted from plants by the German chemist Reinitzer in the 1880s. With the help of the physicist Lehmann, he had discovered cholesteric liquid crystals. So dramatic and life-like were the writhing figures visible in the optical microscope during the melting process, that the eminent scientist Ernst Haeckel wrote a book entitled ‘Crystal Souls—Studies of Inorganic Life’ (frontispiece reproduced in figure 6) [53]. Haeckel, like Newton before him, guided by his own mystical (and by that time largely outdated) views, was convinced that these liquid crystals contained the essence of life itself, the vital force.Figure 6.

Bottom Line: The idea that there is a clear distinction between these two classes of matter has waxed and waned in popularity through past centuries.The older picture of disjoint universes of forms is better understood as a continuum of forms, with significant overlap and common features unifying biological and inorganic matter.In addition to the philosophical relevance of this perspective, there are important ramifications for science.

View Article: PubMed Central - PubMed

Affiliation: Department of Applied Mathematics, Research School of Physics and Engineering , The Australian National University , Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200 , Australia.

ABSTRACT
The morphologies of biological materials, from body shapes to membranes within cells, are typically curvaceous and flexible, in contrast to the angular, facetted shapes of inorganic matter. An alternative dichotomy has it that biomolecules typically assemble into aperiodic structures in vivo, in contrast to inorganic crystals. This paper explores the evolution of our understanding of structures across the spectrum of materials, from living to inanimate, driven by those naive beliefs, with particular focus on the development of crystallography in materials science and biology. The idea that there is a clear distinction between these two classes of matter has waxed and waned in popularity through past centuries. Our current understanding, driven largely by detailed exploration of biomolecular structures at the sub-cellular level initiated by Bernal and Astbury in the 1930s, and more recent explorations of sterile soft matter, makes it clear that this is a false dichotomy. For example, liquid crystals and other soft materials are common to both living and inanimate materials. The older picture of disjoint universes of forms is better understood as a continuum of forms, with significant overlap and common features unifying biological and inorganic matter. In addition to the philosophical relevance of this perspective, there are important ramifications for science. For example, the debates surrounding extra-terrestrial life, the oldest terrestrial fossils and consequent dating of the emergence of life on the Earth rests to some degree on prejudices inferred from the supposed dichotomy between life-forms and the rest.

No MeSH data available.


Related in: MedlinePlus