The Crystal Society; An introduction

Many strange stories can be heard on university benches during coffee breaks. During my undergraduate studies, a friend used to make fun by saying: “Minerals are devious and have their own secret organization that will rule the world one day”. As it became a daily joke, I have a lot of memories with many crazy theories we used to make up regarding strategies that minerals develop for world domination. All of our humoristic theories, though, were inspired by human behavior and actions. So, while I was wondering how I could deliver the complexity of mineral crystals, I thought trying to equate them with humans. So here, I would like to introduce you to the “The Crystal Society”; a society that is not a product of imagination like my youthful theories, but a real existing civilization with many similarities to ours.

Have you ever thought that crystals are organized? That they have laws they obey and different places to call home or families? Let me give you the answer to all these questions. Yes, they do! All the rocks around and below us, the mountains, the seafloor, the soil, the minerals and many of the everyday objects we use have something in common; they are all composed of a vast variety of crystals. The most amazing thing though is that these crystals are not randomly distributed in solid materials. They are actually coordinated by natural laws acting as a real society.

In reality, human society is quite small compared to the truly enormous crystal one. We could simply say that our society is established, as shown in Figure 1, which will give you an impression of the huge difference in magnitude of these two societies. Chemistry and physics (pressure, temperature, and composition) control the occurrence of a rock type and the containing minerals (for more information see here). In fact, as a city is established after the gathering of a large number of people, rocks and minerals are formed after the aggregation of many crystals together. However, are the conditions under which humans and crystals survive exactly the same? Humans can survive at temperatures between -25°C and 50°C and pressure around 1 bar. On the other hand, the so far known survival range of crystals is -273°C to 3400°C temperature and up to 6,000,000 bars pressure. This could explain why crystals are spread throughout the whole universe colonizing the majority of stars and planets, while we are restricted within some superficial fragments of land on a water-dominated planet.

Figure 1: Left: overview of human society on Earth (during night time!), from NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC. Right: image of infant universe indicating the crystal society…so far, from ESA and the Planck Collaboration

Generally, we tend to say tectonic plates, rocks and minerals, but we have to understand that the main reason of such categorizations is the differentiation of the crystals comprising all these large-scale structures. As in human society, crystals can be examined at different  scales. For example, continents include countries, which have many cities hosting a great number of families that are composed of individual human beings. Similarly, oceanic crust (click here for more about the oceanic crust) is made of different rocks, which contain a variety of mineral categories. Those involve numerous minerals, which are composed of many distinct crystals. More specifically, as it can be seen in figure 2, if Asia corresponds to the Pacific Ocean Plate, then the different rock types comprising the tectonic plate reflect the countries of Asia (Japan, China, India, etc.). If we zoom-in a bit more, a city in an Asian country could be regarded as a mineral category in a rock type. Mineral categories though are consisted of many different specific minerals that could correspond to human families. Finally, a single crystal of a specific mineral can be considered as an individual person.

Figure 2: Correlation between human and crystal society substrates.

Studying crystals in depth, eventually, showed that my friend wasn’t wrong about everything. Crystals have a society; not a devious one, but an impressive and unimaginably huge society, which is highly associated with humanity. My research focuses on forming crystals in the laboratory and at least for the sake of the argument, I could claim that I am a kind of crystal sociologist (call me crystallographer if you like). I assure you that it is not an easy task. It is true that humans are complicated, but at least communication between people makes sociologist’s job a bit easier. On the other hand, the absence of conversation between crystals and humans means a lot of effort from scientists to understand what is hidden behind their complex behavior. The effort, though, is not without reward. Studying crystal formation and growth is essential not only for geology, but also for chemistry, (micro)biology and medicine. Crystals contain information about the conditions under which they are formed or how microbes survive. In addition, understanding crystal chemistry and structure can even lead to save human lives, with the discovery and design of new medicines. Fundamentally in geosciences, crystal studies is the most important tool used in mineralogy, crystallography and petrology in order to understand Earth’s function and evolution. Thus, studying crystals is as vital to understand different processes of our planet and the organisms living on it, as is the study of human behavior for the development of our society.

In the end, a critical point we should never forget is that the survival of any society depends on the connection of many similar individual components. Hence, like every different human being is vital for the formation of human society, so is every single crystal, composing any rock, for the formation of our planet. Actually, if we think that the construction of Earth is based on crystal formation, we could say that our very existence is due to occurrence of crystal society. Not a so insignificant society to study, don’t you think?

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