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Think About It: Nobel Prize Winner Sir Harold Kroto Throws Down the Gauntlet

Copernicus, Galileo and Giordano Bruno fought for us to have the freedom to doubt and question those who claim authority on dogma unsubstantiated by evidence. This is the fundamental basis for the ideas expressed by Sir Harold Kroto, as he speaks to international groups ranging from Nobel Laureates to the up-and-coming scientists and other young decision-makers of the future. It will be a major theme of his SLAS2013 keynote presentation "Science and Society in the 21st Century," Tuesday, January 15 in Orlando, FL.


"Think about it." Why such a statement by a winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and SLAS2013 keynote speaker? Because Sir Harold Kroto, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, is overwhelmingly committed to challenging not only scientists but everyone, to discover and act upon the truth and not allow the perpetuation of ancient dogma or politically self-seeking propaganda to drive important decisions.

"Scientists have a responsibility, or at least I feel I have a responsibility, to ensure that what I do is for the benefit of the human race," Kroto says. "It is important that we try to point out facts to help those in power to make decisions. Unfortunately, this is not often the case. Although knowledge cannot guarantee good decisions, common sense suggests that wisdom is an unlikely consequence of ignorance."

Harry Kroto received a B.Sc. in chemistry and a Ph.D. in molecular spectroscopy from the University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK. After postdoctoral work at the National Research Council, Ottawa, Canada, and Bell Telephone Laboratories, Murray Hill, NJ, USA, he started his academic career at the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK, in 1967, became a professor in 1985 and a Royal Society Research Professor in 1991. In 1996, he was knighted for his contributions to chemistry and later that year, together with Robert Curl and Richard Smalley of Rice University, Houston, TX, USA, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of C60 Buckminsterfullerene, a new form of carbon.

Getting at the Evidence

"Science is misunderstood in many ways," he adds. "We need everyone to know how to think rather than accept unquestioningly what we are told. It is amazing to me what people will believe without any proof." For example, he points out "common sense indicates that the sun goes around the earth because in the morning the sun is on one side and later it is on the other, and it is quite reasonable for people to accept this." However science is really something else, which he calls: "un-common sense."

People "believed" that the Earth was at the center of the solar system for centuries until Nicolaus Copernicus in the 16th century looked more carefully into the problem and the motions of other planets and showed these motions were consistent with the heliocentric system for the solar system first proposed by Aristarchus of Samos in 270 BC. He went against the prevailing religious attitudes of the time as he recognized that the evidence indicated that the earth-centered model could not be correct and it was because the Earth was a sphere rotating on an axis that made it appear to us on the Earth that the Sun was rotating around us. It was not until the French physicist Léon Foucault (1819-1868) set up his famous pendulum in the Pantheon in Paris that these beliefs began to change. He demonstrated that the earth rotates on its axis by suspending a heavy iron ball with a pin on the bottom with a 200-foot wire. As the pendulum swung, it left a mark. Over the course of 36 hours, the mark in the sand moved to the right, proving movement of the earth. "A similar system set up at the poles would follow a 24-hour period," Kroto adds.

"In fact the earth is turning on its axis and that made it seem as the sun was going around," he points out. "It is ‘scientific' perspective that forces us to look very carefully at everything and when something does not seem quite right to ask what is going on. I call this attitude Natural Philosophy, which changed a long-standing belief that truth is to be found in the Holy Scriptures and results in democracy and science – that is, The Enlightenment."

Fast Forward to the 21st Century

It is because Kroto wants to see more people act like Copernicus that he spends about half of his year advocating his cause in front of international audiences of students, researchers, business people and government entities.

"What bothers me is that a majority of people accept a whole load of material without knowing the evidence and much of it cannot possibly be correct as a few moments of rational thinking unequivocally indicates," he says. "The majority are not able to decide on whether what they are being told is true or false and they are quite happy to accept claims that make them feel comfortable and unfortunately shy away from the truth if they suspect it will cause discomfiture. Sometimes, they do not want to think about very important issues carefully because it conflicts with what they want to believe. Learning the truth is not always pleasant or even useful to them. They are much happier not knowing the truth. While perhaps this is OK for an individual, it is not OK for those charged with making decisions in positions of responsibility in government, the judiciary and in industry.

"If we are going to make good decisions, we must think very carefully about the questions," Kroto stresses. "Then, we must make decisions on the basis of really understanding the issues at a deep level rather than on a dogmatic precept or misunderstanding. We must apply scientific analysis to whether dogmatic constructs are actually true or false."

Kroto knows this is not easy. In fact, he believes it has become harder in these difficult times of increasing unemployment and financial uncertainty. In the case of science funding, one of the biggest challenges to researchers is a total misunderstanding by those controlling the research support of how major breakthroughs are made, Kroto states. He indicates that to obtain most funding today, research scientists are asked to "predict the value of the impact of the science they have not yet done and the discoveries they have not yet made. Almost invariably in science, the major breakthroughs are those that are totally unexpected," he notes. "By and large, they are usually made by researchers who are curious about something they've seen or noticed. When they probe the observations that have made them personally curious more deeply, they uncover the totally unexpected. It is these unsuspected breakthroughs that invariably lead to totally unexpected applications."

He cites laser eye surgery as an example. "That major breakthrough was made in physics by a scientist who wanted to develop a high frequency amplifier," Kroto states. "There was absolutely no way that anyone could predict that such an amplifier would in time (ca. 20-30 years later) lead to a new and powerful application in eye surgery.

"The worry I have is that as research funding becomes ever more restricted, the funding agencies will demand more-and-more ridiculous impact statements as determinants of funding," he continues. "Many young scientists are now spending 50% of their time writing research proposals where they are expected to hypothesize about ‘impact.' They can have no real idea of impact at this point, so if they are honest on this issue they will be denied funding because it's perceived that they're doing research that is not particularly useful. Thus an intrinsically corrupt approach is being fostered which slowly but surely is destroying our discipline which is based on doubt, questioning and more importantly a deep respect for evidence-based truth."

In the private sector, Kroto says that "today's pharmaceutical companies simply buy up research breakthroughs from start-ups. They no longer are places to develop the next generation of researchers. The highly successful approach of AT&T's Bell Laboratories, which conflated fundamental and applied research so successfully prior to its execution in the 1970s has been destroyed – perhaps forever."

1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

"I work on things that puzzle me and which I find personally interesting," Kroto explains. "I didn't actually make any big decision to become a scientist. The route to becoming an academic researcher and teacher at a university (Sussex in the UK) gradually opened up and I kept going as I needed a job and I discovered – a bit to my surprise – that I was pretty good at scientific research and teaching. I do not claim to be an intellectually exceptional person but I do have an innate curiosity about almost everything from the arts to the sciences and everything in-between. This curiosity is allied with an attitude that will not let me put in a second-rate effort for anything I start. Once I have initiated a job, I pursue it to the end to the best of my ability. This might not be better than others could do it but in general they are not as interested in the things that interest me personally. As time progressed one neat breakthrough followed another. My work has resulted in some nice contributions. I had no prior aspirations to be successful and did not predict the breakthroughs, many of which were discovered on the backs of other research proposals. One never can tell what might be uncovered."

Kroto indicates his first significant contribution came in the early to mid-70s. "I had been working in molecular spectroscopy and an idea about phosphorus chemistry compounds had been on my mind." His ponderings led to making the first phosphaalkenes (compounds with carbon phosphorus double bonds), which drove his interest in molecules with chains of carbon atoms. Sitting next to a colleague, John Nixon, he hatched a joint project that led quite unexpectedly to a whole new area of phosphorus chemistry.

Later that decade and into the early ‘80s, carbon continued to fascinate Kroto and a project with a close friend and colleague, David Walton, resulted in a synthetic/spectroscopy project with an undergraduate, Anthony Alexander. This led later to a radioastronomy project with astronomers in Canada that uncovered the exciting result that large linear carbon chain molecules existed in interstellar space.

This observation was the catalyst of the research project with Rice University scientists Robert Curl and Richard Smalley and their research co-workers, Jim Heath Sean O'Brien and Yuan Liu, that uncovered the totally unexpected existence of C60, which he named Buckminsterfullerene and is now affectionately known as the Buckyball. This was the discovery that led to the Nobel Prize. "This is the third form of pure carbon and we were completely surprised, as was almost everyone else, that this hollow spheroidal carbon cage molecule existed at all," he says. "I suggested to my colleagues at Rice University that the large linear carbon molecules we had detected by radioastronomy were made in stars, and we set out to prove that. Rice had the equipment to do the experiments, and this resulted in the totally unexpected discovery of the Buckminsterfullerene."

According to the Florida State University website:

The most remarkable of the fullerenes is the 60-carbon alkene buckminsterfullerene, also known as a Buckyball. This highly unusual molecule was named after the geodesic dome, a structure that exhibits a geometry that approximates a truncated icosohedral soccerball-shape, invented by visionary engineer, author, and architect R. Buckminster Fuller. The roundest known molecule in the world, the Buckyball has carbon atoms at 60 chemically equivalent vertices that are connected by 32 faces, 12 of which are pentagonal and 20 hexagonal. Due to their unique structure, Buckyballs are remarkably rugged, being capable of surviving collisions with metals and other materials at speeds in excess of 20,000 miles per hour, a pace that would tear most organic molecules apart. Higher and lower order Buckyballs containing different numbers of carbon atoms deviate from the strict geodesic dome structure and are consequently not as stable, but are still composed primarily of pentagons and hexagons.

"It was this discovery for which we were awarded the Nobel Prize," Kroto states. "Some say this discovery also opened up the field of nanotechnology. These experiments were carried out, however, because I wanted to understand the chemistry in a star based on an earlier radio astronomy study. It was driven by curiosity not by any prescient idea of what we might discover."

Regarding Kroto's point about today's funding requests needing to show expected value? He says none of the contributions from his work on phosphorus compounds, carbon chain molecules in interstellar space or the Buckyball were predictable and almost certainly would not have met today's funding requirements.

"It's that sort of rather haphazard way that research lurches forward unpredictably that people in government departments find very difficult to accept and support," he concludes. Kroto, who adores neat quotations, attributes this situation to the quote from the Lord of the Rings, "Not all those who wander are lost."

Working with the System

With government funding requiring more actionable proposals and corporations doing less original research, perhaps the way to promote innovation is to encourage curiosity. That is why Kroto spends so much time traveling the globe speaking to any group prepared to listen.

"I give lectures at major institutions and meetings," he says, such as a summer 2012 presentation at the 62nd Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting. The annual Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting brings together Nobel Laureates and young researchers for intergenerational inspiration. A key line in his Lindau presentation was "I'm not here to make you feel comfortable. I'm here to make you think."

"At the Lindau conference, I spoke to 600-700 young people," Kroto recounts. "These are some of the smartest young people from all over the planet, some of whom will become the decision-makers of the future. I think some of the observations I make are important for them to hear and digest. My hope is that some of them will become senior people in industry and government and they will think carefully about scientific issues and other issues of humanitarian and social responsibility as well sustainability. They should learn how scientists think and how they determine new knowledge and make decisions. New knowledge leads to technology and finally to valuable applications to society. One would hope that these applications would be used for the benefit of the human race and not for its destruction."

Road to the Nobel Prize

"I never set out to win a Nobel Prize," Kroto says. "I only set out to do everything to the best of my ability and as I have said, I never put in a second rate effort. I do not think I am any smarter than any other good scientist, but I am prepared to work until three, four or five in the morning to ensure whatever I'm doing is the best I can personally do at that moment. I think it is this attitude more than anything else that brought me whatever relative success I have achieved."

Another factor has been finding and securing the correct tools to conduct his work. "In the early part of my career, I needed a microwave spectrometer and it turned out to be very difficult to get it. At the time it was very expensive and I had great difficulty convincing my funding agency that I needed to get it.

"Between 1969 and 1974, I was placed in the outrageous situation of having to travel for a week each month with my research students to another university to use the equipment for which I had actually written the research proposal!" he continues. "However notwithstanding this ridiculous situation, my students and I obtained outstanding results using ‘my' equipment. Finally after much pressure, the funding agency (SRC) agreed to fund an instrument to be located in my own laboratory." Kroto said that then his career really took off.

Kroto thinks that while today more young assistant professors seem to be given sufficient tools, there is tremendous pressure on them to bring home the bacon. "The pressures are really quite enormous and very disturbing I think. It is not a good intellectual environment in some cases," he surmises.

Today, Kroto has tools provided generously by Florida State University, which has been his academic home since 2004/5. He has great colleagues such as Naresh Dalal to carry out novel functional materials research as well as Alan Marshall at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. Marshall is co-inventor of Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometry (FT-ICR-MS), which has developed into one of the most powerful analytical tools. In fact, the Magnet Lab boasts a spectrometer featuring a "superconducting ICR magnet with a field of 14.5 tesla – the highest field in the world for such an instrument."

Using the high-power equipment in this laboratory, Kroto and his colleagues recently released a paper, "Closed network growth of fullerenes," in Nature Communications that put another piece of the C60 jigsaw puzzle in place. According to the abstract:

Tremendous advances in nanoscience have been made since the discovery of the fullerenes; however, the formation of these carbon-caged nanomaterials still remains a mystery. Here we reveal that fullerenes self-assemble through a closed network growth mechanism by incorporation of atomic carbon and C2. The growth processes have been elucidated through experiments that probe direct growth of fullerenes upon exposure to carbon vapour, analysed by state-of-the-art Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry. Our results shed new light on the fundamental processes that govern self-assembly of carbon networks, and the processes that we reveal in this study of fullerene growth are likely be involved in the formation of other carbon nanostructures from carbon vapour, such as nanotubes and graphene. Further, the results should be of importance for illuminating astrophysical processes near carbon stars or supernovae that result in C60 formation throughout the Universe.

Teaching the Young while the Young Teach Us

"A fundamental scientist is someone who goes into a laboratory day-in-and-day-out, week-in-and-week-out, year-in-and-year-out to solve basic problems which advance our knowledge about how the universe works and hopefully will also be of value to society," Kroto says. "The universe teaches us to have an intrinsic respect for the truth; no other profession has this attitude. Politicians are conveniently selective with the truth, journalists hyperinflate it and many others turn a blind eye to it."

That's why Kroto is committed to global science education and the development of Internet streaming technologies, which allow people to create and upload material to help one another. His present major effort is GEOSET, Global Education Outreach for Science, Engineering and Technology, which captures the clever ideas that teachers have for explaining complex science and sharing resources.

"We discovered that undergraduate and graduate research students are outstanding at explaining the work they are doing," he says. "Additionally, they have a lot of passion and many are excellent at presenting the things they are fascinated by even though they may not have a lot of teaching experience."

The material is completely free and all are welcome to download and share most of the teaching resource material available on GEOSET. Presentations address a complete range of topics from astronomy and the arts to social science and from biology to physics. Viewers can browse resources by age, level and presenter and further search by title, synopsis and keywords. Kroto, himself, has 44 presentations posted on GEOSET.

"A tremendous spinoff from GEOSET is the revolution that it has achieved with the résumé for students," Kroto explains. "Students combine data with their video presentation and send the resulting URL along with their job or scholarship applications. This provides a great amount of extra information for the reviewer which is impossible to transmit in an arid pile of paper which is the basis of a standard résumé or CV."

Disconnect from Technology

Kroto believes that young people today have a major disadvantage that he did not have – the opportunity to take things apart, study and fix them. While schools try to replicate it by setting up hands-on experiments, they are mainly artificial and not the same as real-life objects he says.

"In my home, there was very little technology – there was a radio," he recalls. "I could open up the back and see the valves and if they were not lit up. A valve would go every few months, and I could replace it – by fixing things one learns how things work and one develops an analytical approach to find out what the problem might be. I could see resistances and how the electronics was wired up for example. In fact one time as a kid I made my own radio. My world was relatively simple; there was no television, Internet, telephone or car but at least I could see roughly how much of my world worked.

"Today we are surrounded by television, computers, recorders, mobile phones, memory sticks – what is going on inside these?" he continues. "When something no longer works it is generally obsolete, has to be discarded and one has no option but to buy the new model. There is a major disconnect here. Kids are very fond of their mobile phones, but they can't open them up and fix them when they no longer work. They have to throw them away and get new ones. How much reverence can they have for technology that has been intrinsically designed to be discarded? Society teaches an attitude: that if one can do nothing else but throw something away, it is not intrinsically important and one does not need to know how it works."

Kroto insists we need to develop the natural curiosity that all small children possess until the age of eight or nine. "We need to nurture that curiosity from ages 10 to 15 so young people stay intrigued. If we don't, it means that a large number of people do not know how their world actually works."

Challenge to SLAS2013 Participants

Kroto knows the SLAS2013 audience will be filled with people who agree that nurturing the scientific mind and making decisions should be based on the knowledge obtained through scientific method and reliability. He invites everyone to join him in his lifelong quest to encourage all to learn how to think.

"Apply scientific analysis to test whether dogmatic constructs are actually true or false," he cautions. "That is the best way to solve issues not only of sustainability and survival but also humanitarian ones requiring a fundamental attitude related to social responsibility."

September 7, 2012