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Paul Niggli
(26 Jun 1888 - 13 Jan 1953)

Swiss mineralogist who developed a set of notations designating the various space groups describing the internal arrangement inside crystals.


Paul Niggli

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Paul Niggli was a Swiss mineralogist who originated the idea of a systematic deduction of the patterns in the internal structure of crystals by means of X-ray data. He supplied a complete outline of methods that have since been used to determine these patterns. There are 230 possible different internal patterns for different crystals. Because the patterns describe a three-dimensional arrangement, they are known as space groups. Niggli also developed a notation that described the individual space groups, and co-authored a definitive set of tables describing them.

Niggli was the third scientist to lead research at the Institut für Mineralogie und Petrographie in Zurich, Switzerland in 1920. It was there that in 1856 crystallographic research first began in Zürich with A. Kenngott, who described the crystals of alpine minerals with the classical methods of morphological crystallography. Those efforts were followed by U. Grubenmann, whoc concentrated on the field of petrography.

Elsewhere, new tools for modern crystallography were discovered: X-ray diffraction by Max von Laue (1912) followed and adopted by the two Braggs (son and father) for crystal structure analysis.

Meanwhile, Niggli published the seminal reference work in structural crystallography, Geometrische Kristallographie des Diskontinuums, and established the Institute as a leader in the field.

In 1929, after a Faraday Society meeting in London on Crystal Structure and Chemical Constitution, Sir William Bragg convened a meeting to improve the communication between international crystallographers. Afterwards, committees were set up to investigate a coordinated abstracting scheme, the preparation of standardized space-group tables and the standardization of crystallographic nomenclature.

Venn diagram showing crystallography uses in related science fields
Crystallography and its importance in the other sciences. (source)

The next year, Paul Niggli hosted a 12 day Tables Committee meeting at the Institute. This led to the publication, in 1935, of the International Tables for the Determination of Crystal Structures to which Niggli contributed, and was a co-author. Thus the nomenclature of the 230 space-groups was standardized with the use of such notation as I 213 replacing the less informative symbol T 5.

Meanwhile, Niggli's research also advanced in crystal chemistry and the application of group representation theory to crystal physics. He divided his scientific and teaching activities between petrography, mineralogy and crystallography, and was exceptionally active in each with equal three main fields.

The Roebling Medal was awarded to Niggli in 1947. It is the highest award of the Mineralogical Society of America for scientific eminence as represented primarily by scientific publication of outstanding original research in mineralogy.

Niggli retired in 1959, turning over leadership to F. Laves, when the institute was reorganized as the Institut für Kristallographie und Petrographie.

The International Union of Crystallography has an article illustrating Symmetry and its application in the International Tables for X-ray Crystallography. 

See also:
  • todayinsci icon 26 Jun - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Niggli's birth.

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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