The General Assembly of the United Nations established 2014 as the International year of Crystallography, and a recent president of the International Union of Crystallography, André Authier, decided most appropriately that this was a good occasion to write a monograph on the history of crystallography. This was a vast endeavor because the scientific speculations regarding the nature of crystals goes back for many centuries, or even for several millennia. The book is a remarkable work of scholarship, encompassing more than 1000 references to the original sources as the author reveals the history in slightly less than 500 pages encompassing 12 chapters. It covers the period of X-ray crystallography from its discovery in 1912 and the following decades, but an update is supplied to the reader by a list of Nobel Prizes awarded until today.

A considerable effort is spent on the history of the concept of space lattice with many amusing surprises, at least for me. For example, it was new to me that Kepler's interest in the orbits of planets derived from his idea that the planets were bound to move on the surface of a Russian-doll series of Platonic solids. It was in order to check out this idea that he embarked on the vast task of determining the precise orbits from Tycho Brahe's observations, but instead he found that the planets moved in elliptical orbits with the sun at the focal point, thus preparing the ground for the upcoming Newtonian mechanics. But in spite of the failure of the Platonic solids relation to planetary orbits, Kepler's fascination with the symmetry of bodies such as snowflakes and crystals remained, and he discovered that the rhomb-dodecahedron, in addition to the cube, is space filling, which was important for the subsequent development of the space lattice concept. Thoughts by dozens of other people on such matters are described, and a short bibliography of each is nicely annotated to the text. It is very entertaining reading, although not light coffee-table stuff.

The history of the role of X-rays in crystallography has been reported before, quite vividly in P. P. Ewald's 50 years of X-ray Crystallography (1962), a monograph also supported by the International Union of Crystallography, where it can be found on the Internet.

The scholarly style of Authier's book brings, of course, new aspects, but it has its price in terms of lack of easy comprehensibility. Here and there mistakes appear that will baffle the young student, such as in the text above Eq. (3.3), where the dimensionless ratio of two lengths is subtracted from “t” having the dimension of time. In the description of the Compton shift (Sec. 9.5, p. 221), the alert student would anticipate the maximal wavelength shift to occur when the X-ray photon delivers the maximum momentum to the electron and thus due to momentum conservation undergoes a scattering angle of 180°, but not only are such simple physical arguments typically missing in the text, but in this case even with the wrong statement that the maximal Compton shift occurs at 90° scattering angle.

So where is the market for this book? Experienced crystallographers will undoubtedly find things that they did not know before. They will also benefit from consulting the enormous list of references when writing scientific articles or when teaching crystallography. Authier's book is a great source for spicing up lectures with the people who paved the way for our present understanding of the subject. The young student, on the other hand, could easily be frustrated because there is very little tutorial help in the eye-opener style that, for example, made Feynman's Lectures so famous.

So in short, Early Days of X-ray Crystallography is a remarkable scholarly book, good to know and consult for historical facts, but less suited as a tutorial textbook in X-ray crystallography.

Jens Als-Nielsen is professor emeritus at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen. He has been a visiting professor at MIT and the Universities of California at Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. His expertise is in neutron and X-ray diffraction, in particular using synchrotron radiation. He was the 1985 recipient of the European Physical Society's Hewlett-Packard Prize in Solid State Physics 1985 and an elected member of the Danish and the Norwegian Royal Societies of Science and Letters and the Danish Academy of Technical Sciences. He is the co-author (with Des McMorrow) of Elements of Modern X-ray Physics (2001).