A Peek into the Mind of a Nobel Laureate: An Exclusive Interview with Sir Harry Kroto

"I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings." ~ Albert Einstein, one of Sir Harry Kroto's favorite quotes.

A first look at Sir Harry Kroto's office revealed an orderly array of books, paintings, logo designs, miniscule statues, and numerous magazines covered by a molecule resembling the geodesic domes of Richard Buckminister Fuller. On his desk, Sir Kroto happily displayed many unique postcards, including one that featured a man, with his back turned, admiring his painted car. It was a Jack Vettriano print sent to him by one of his sons. "This is one of my favorite images," he later revealed in the interview, in which he also described his various passions: from the study of chemistry in the laboratory to art and graphics, and from freethinking humanism to education.

A sketch of a frog, by Sir Harry Kroto. Image courtesy of Sir Harry Kroto.

A sketch of a frog, by Sir Harry Kroto. Image courtesy of Sir Harry Kroto.

Not only is Sir Kroto passionate about arts and sciences, but he also dedicated much of his time to educational initiatives, including the Global Educational Outreach for Science Engineering and Technology (GEOSET) and the Vega Science Trust, both of which are streaming educational science on the Internet.

I. Science

"To be a scientist is to be fascinated by the Universe, to have the same attitude as that of a child," Harry Kroto said in the interview. When asked to further explain his meaning behind this view, he replied: "Children learn from scratch. Children develop and learn quickly from their surrounding environment and the events that take place around them." So, what have some of us been losing steadily as we age? In other words, what quality did we all possess as children that perhaps some of us, as adults, have left behind?

Simply, curiosity and openness to whatever occurs.

According to Harry Kroto, some people, as they age, just lose their fascination with the world: that initial intrigue with how the stars turned off in the sun's presence. Not only that, but the modern world is filled with things "that are difficult to work out." When he was a small boy in England, for example, he could take things apart and fix the family radio when the valves failed, thus learning how it worked. And even though it was difficult to piece an alarm clock together from its many gears and pendulums, he could disassemble an alarm clock to see how it ticked. Objects today, however, are not so easily understood by young people: from iPhones to hard drives to microchips. The modern inventions just do not reveal their secrets so easily.

When asked what should dictate a scientific mind, or any mind in general, Sir Kroto stated that a "doubt-based philosophy" is the best mantra for those who viewed the world with microscopes, telescopes, and everything in between. Quoting the American author Walt Whitman, Sir Kroto said, "The scientific spirit is to be sure, but not too sure!" Most people before the seventeenth century believed in a geocentric universe, with the Earth at the center and everything else, including the Sun, revolving around it. It took the "uncommon sense" of Copernicus and Galileo to question this premise and to discover that this assumption did not fit all observations. That's how science progresses: through doubt, inquiries, and examination of all evidence, in a dynamic chain of questioning and re-questioning.

II. The Buckyball

Sir Harry Kroto and his two senior collaborators, Robert Curl and Richard Smalley, shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of Buckminsterfullerene, which he named in honor of the architect whose geodesic domes resembled the soccer-ball structure.

Founders of the Buckyball

Back: Robert Curl (Rice University)
Left to Right Front Row: Jim Heath (Graduate Student, now a full professor at Caltech), Richard Smalley (Rice University), Sir Harry Kroto (Florida State University, University of Sussex), Sean O'Brien (Graduate Student, now works at Texas Instrument)
Image courtesy of Sir Harry Kroto.

Founders of the Buckyball Back: Robert Curl (Rice University) Left to Right Front Row: Jim Heath (Graduate Student, now a full professor at Caltech), Richard Smalley (Rice University), Sir Harry Kroto (Florida State University, University of Sussex), Sean O'Brien (Graduate Student, now works at Texas Instrument) Image courtesy of Sir Harry Kroto.

Buckminsterfullerene, and the rest of the fullerene family, are hollow-spherical, elliptical, or tubular cage molecules constructed entirely from carbon atoms. Due to their unique structures, the potential uses of these "buckyballs," and the related nanotubes, have fueled many ongoing research projects. These include their possible applications in nanotechnology (superconductivity and heat conduction) and medicine (drug delivery to specific target cells, such as tumor cells), to name a few.

According to Sir Kroto, the discovery of the buckyball was a serendipitous breakthrough. He had suggested to his co-workers at Rice University that they should simulate the atmospheric conditions of Red Giant carbon stars. It was during their simulations in the laboratory that they stumbled upon the sixty-carbon unknown molecule. Two assets that greatly assisted them in arriving at a possible structure for this discovery was Sir Kroto's graphic-design background and interest in architecture. His passion for art extends back to when he was a small child, growing up in Bolton, Lancashire, England. In fact, his first major national award was for a book jacket design. In addition to sketches and painting, he has designed many magazine covers posters and logos for various companies and institutions. Sir Kroto attended the 1967 International and Universal Exposition, and it was there that he saw the geodesic domes of Robert Buckminster Fuller.

The dome of Robert Buckminster Fuller at the Expo in 1967. Image courtesy of Sir Harry Kroto.

The dome of Robert Buckminster Fuller at the Expo in 1967. Image courtesy of Sir Harry Kroto.

These majestic architectures held, what became, an important clue to the likely structure of C60. He and his colleagues deduced that perhaps a soccer-ball-shaped molecule could exist because its structure, like those of the dome and the soccer ball, is geodesically robust. "The soccer ball, in fact, can withstand a lot of pressure from a kick," Sir Kroto explained.

Thus, the buckyball was born. At the 59th Nobel Laureate meeting in Lindau, Germany, he summarized, "We'd all like to be able to split water molecules using light, but if it's possible then experience tells us it will likely come from some guy screwing around in a totally difference area, not from a directed program." The example he used in the interview, besides his own Nobel fairy tale, was the laser. "The laser was invented for development of high frequency amplification, but now it's used for eye surgery. No eye surgeon would have invented it."

III. The GooYouWiki World

"When was the last time you looked something up in the encyclopedia?" Sir Kroto asked in the interview. "And when was the last time you looked up something on Wikipedia?" he added with a laugh. "The truth is that Google, Youtube, and Wikipedia have revolutionized information access in the world, which I call the GooYouWiki World." Indeed, Google "revolutionized the search engine," providing results at the click of a button; Youtube "democratized film making"; and Wikipedia became a "collection of everyone's interests that has wiped out the encyclopedia almost overnight."

One of things that Sir Kroto does not believe in is "censorship." That's why he celebrates the idea of the GooYouWiki world, in which information is accessible to everyone who has a passion for learning. He has often presented Buckyball Workshops for small children between seven and nine years old, all of whom "were just so great.

Buckyball Workshop. Image courtesy of Sir Harry Kroto. 1

Buckyball Workshop. Image courtesy of Sir Harry Kroto. 1

They've got a diligent appetite to discover everything about the world." The aim of the GEOSET website is to enable teachers all around the world to download teaching materials for use in the classroom, including lesson plans as well as videos about anything from lightning to animal inbreeding. These presentations were created by teachers, as well as students, who displayed the passion to created modular educational material.
Buckyball Workshop. Image courtesy of Sir Harry Kroto. 2

Buckyball Workshop. Image courtesy of Sir Harry Kroto. 2

Sir Harry Kroto also founded the Vega Science Trust, a UK educational charity that presents scientists with a platform to showcase their interests. Over 60 programs were aired on BBC2, with a statistical count of nearly 700,000 viewers, and more were produced for Internet access.

IV. One Last Question

When asked to finish the following sentence, Sir Kroto thought carefully for a moment, looking at his brightly-lit ceiling, then replied:

Professor Sir Harry Kroto is "reasonable at art and science, and has four religions: humanism, amnesty-internationalism, atheism and humorism."

A special thank you to Dr. Kroto for allowing us to publish all of the images here, from his personal collection of arts and photos.

For more information, please visit:

• Sir Harry Kroto's Official Website (Vega)

http://www.kroto.info/

• GEOSET

http://geoset.fsu.edu/home.html

• Living the Nobel Life

http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/Issues/2009/September/LivingtheNobellife.asp

• Youtube Interviews

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbJkk-5sYV4

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZyus7YEP1Q

• Science Blog

http://www.scienceblogs.de/lindaunobel/2009/07/sir-harold-kroto-im-interview-competition-and-motives.php

• Sir Harry Kroto's Autobiography on Nobel Prize Website

http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1996/kroto-autobio.html

• Wikipedia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_Harry_Kroto

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buckminsterfullerene#Properties

Former JYI staff members have gone on to win Rhodes, Marshall, and Fulbright Scholarships, as well as NSF Graduate Research Fellowships and other graduate research funding.
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