THE STORY OF BUCKYBALLS: SIR HAROLD KROTO
by Michael Judd
"My advice is to do something which interests you or which you enjoy...and do it to the absolute best of your ability. If it interests you, however mundane it might seem on the surface, still explore it because something unexpected often turns up just when you least expect it. With this recipe, whatever your limitations, you will still do better than anyone else. Having chosen something worth doing, never give up and try not to let anyone down."
This sound advice comes from Nobel Laureate Sir Harold Kroto who presented an Innovative Lives session to middle school students from Queen Anne School from Upper Marlboro, Md. and the Nysmith School in Herndon, Va. in October 2001. His advice reflects the hardworking, but serendipitous approach that has characterized his own scientific career--an approach that combines discipline with wide ranging interests in the arts and humanities, and a fascination with science as a cultural activity.
Kroto also values collaboration, believing that competition is to be avoided as much as possible. The discovery for which he and his two colleagues received the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was only possible because of the differing, yet complementary, strengths of the research team. Kroto was active in microwave spectroscopy. Working with Robert F. Curl, whose background was in microwave and infrared spectroscopy, Richard E. Smalley, whose research was in cluster chemistry (he had designed and built a special laser supersonic cluster beam apparatus), and a team of creative graduate students, Kroto made the unexpected discovery that the element carbon (two of its most familiar forms are graphite and diamond) can also exist in the form of very stable spheres. Kroto named the most common form "C60," since it consists of 60 carbon atoms arrayed in a sphere.
The team named these new carbon structures "buckminsterfullerenes"--after R. Buckminster Fuller, whose geodesic domes they resemble--or "buckyballs," as they are popularly known. As opposed to the other known forms of carbon, fullerenes represent well-defined chemical compounds with new properties. As a consequence of the research of Kroto, Curl and Smalley, a whole new chemistry has developed to manipulate the fullerene structure and to study their properties.
In his Innovative Lives program, Kroto began by describing his childhood. Born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire in England, the son of Silesian immigrants, Kroto went to school in the town of Bolton. He remembered being "the kid with the funny name." His interests were broad even at a young age and in school he enjoyed art, geography and woodworking. Like other young innovators, he enjoyed tinkering, spending a lot of time playing with his Meccano set (similar to an Erector® set). He developed an early fascination with chemistry, riveted by his chemistry teacher's ability to melt lead with a gas blowpipe and to "blow continuously without apparently stopping to breathe in." He remembered being attracted by "the smells and bangs that endowed chemistry with that slight but charismatic element of danger which is now banned from the classroom."
He also has had a lifelong interest in graphic design and, while a student at the University of Sussex, won a Sunday Times book jacket design competition. He was especially proud of a cover design for a departmental teaching and research brochure which was featured in an international annual of the best in professional graphic design.
In 1961, he received his B.Sc. degree and developed an interest in quantum mechanics. He met Richard Dixon, later a professor at Bristol, who introduced him to spectroscopy and with whom he completed his Ph.D. in 1964. After graduation, Kroto accepted a postdoctoral position at the National Research Council in Ottawa. In 1966, after two years at the National Research Council, Kroto went to work at Bell Labs (Murray Hill) with Yoh Han Pao. The following year, he accepted a permanent lectureship at the University of Sussex, where he is still. In his early years at Sussex, he remembers thinking, " I would give myself five years to make a go of research and teaching and if it was not working out I would retrain to do graphic design (my first love) or go into scientific educational TV."
After acquiring his own spectrometer at Sussex, he continued his research on carbon chain molecules, work which led to the discoveries for which he was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize. He permanently shelved the idea of setting up a graphic design studio. In 1985 he became Professor of Chemistry and in 1991 was awarded a Royal Society Research Professorship, which freed him from his teaching duties and allowed him to concentrate on research. However, he states, "I like teaching so I continue to do some." He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1996, the same year he, Curl and Smalley received the Nobel Prize.
Kroto, Curl and Smalley continued their investigations of C60, trying to make it react with other compounds, including gases such as hydrogen, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, oxygen or ammonia, finding that it was a slow-reacting compound. Since these experiments scientists have found that it is possible to produce superconducting salts of C60, three-dimensional polymers, new catalysts, new materials and electrical and optical properties. One of the most exciting developments was the production of thin tubes with closed ends, called nanotubes, arranged in the same way as fullerenes.
In late 1990, after chemists in Arizona and Germany figured out how to make fullerenes in more than trace quantities, "buckyballs" became something of a scientific fad and other scientists began experimenting with them. NASA thought they might be used as rocket fuel. Medical researchers thought they showed potential as anti-HIV drugs. IBM, DuPont and Xerox also explored possible commercial applications. So far, no practical applications have been found, partially due to the expense of producing C60 in large quantities. However, the new branch of chemistry which has developed from the early experiments has influenced such diverse areas of study as astrochemistry, superconductivity and materials chemistry and physics.
Despite the lack of commercial success, interest in buckyballs remains high, and has spilled over into such widely differing fields as art, astronomy, music and design--a social phenomenon of which Kroto, with his own eclectic tastes and penchant for tinkering, approves. In Uxbridge, Massachusetts a high school class has been creating stained glass buckyballs and a music company, "Buckyballs Music," produces concerts and recordings. Kroto's own enthusiasm for sharing the joy of scientific discovery comes across in his interactions with children of all ages and backgrounds, as does his belief of the importance of preserving our common scientific/ cultural heritage for future generations.
Both of these enthusiasms are embodied in the Vega Science Trust, which he co-founded with Patrick Reams, a BBC producer, in 1995. The purpose of the trust is "to create science films of sufficiently high quality for network television broadcast." The films not only reflect something of Kroto's own excitement about scientific discovery, but also the "intrinsic concepts and principles without which fundamental understanding is impossible." One of the major activities of the trust is recording scientists who have not only made outstanding scientific contributions, but are also outstanding communicators--like Kroto himself. The trust has made some 20 films to date of Royal Institution Discourses, archival programs and interviews.
Students who participated in the Innovative Lives program at the Lemelson Center prepared for the field trip by writing essays about their own interests in science. Many of them are seriously considering future careers in the sciences. After the lively discussion period, students from Nysmith displayed a science fair exhibit on Buckyballs, which Kroto autographed.
Despite the major science achievements reflected in the Nobel Prize, Kroto believes that awards on their own are insufficient motivators, compared to the intrinsic rewards of doing science. He maintains in fact, that his "greatest satisfaction has come in conversations with school children, teachers, lay people, and retired research workers who have often exhibited a fascination for science as a cultural activity and a deep understanding of the way nature works." Through the work of the Vega Trust and his many personal appearances, he shares his enthusiasm for science and discovery with students and the general public alike.
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All text and images © Smithsonian Institution. Updated 3 March 2005.