The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions – Harry Kroto

Published in Chemistry

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1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I was good at science and maths, art and tennis but had to get a job, and science in the 60s was a much better bet that art – I also lost too often at tennis. The number of career avenues open to kids in those days was much less then. I also had very good chemistry and art teachers. Wilf Jary and Harry Heaney at (Bolton) School and Mr Higginson for art. Harry Heaney subsequently left school teaching and became a Professor of Chemistry at Loughborough University

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

Almost certainly some field of graphic art and design. I do a lot of this now. Also, probably animation and science documentary – see and I did have an interview with the BBC in 1964 but I wanted to live abroad so I decided to do a postdoc in Canada. They suggested I see them if and when I came back.

3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?

Chemists have made some of the most humanitarian contributions to society. Liebig (of condenser fame) advised the City of London on the chemical treatment of sewage and before this the Thames was so bad you died if you fell in it – it was so polluted. Crawford Long and others developed anaesthetics – imagine having a leg amputated without anaesthetics – as happened routinely before the 19th century (Image browse on Google Rowlinson’s drawings to get an idea).

Before 1942 when Florey, Heatley and Chain developed ways of making penicillin in large amounts (Fleming did not do any development on his discovery) blood poisoning routinely led to amputation and/or death. I am not sure but some estimates indicate that 70% of the world’s food is produced using fertilisers made by the Haber-Bosch process. What would the modern world be without modern polymers or had we not learned how to grow large crystals of silicon to make the wafers for computer chips. Aspirin and platinum anti-cancer drugs have been great contributions too as has Taxol developed by my FSU colleague Bob Holton. There have been so many wonderful contributions one can be proud of being a chemist.

Unfortunately some chemists have made anti-humanitarian contributions. I was terribly disappointed when I learned that Louis Fieser – who had written the fantastic text book on Organic Chemistry (Fieser & Fieser) that I had bought when I was a kid at school and had read from cover to cover – had invented napalm. I try to encourage young students of science to distance themselves from this sort of application – I do not call it science – and focus on humanitarian contributions. Haber’s reputation has also been tarnished by his development of nerve gas. I ask young people would they not rather be almost unknown heroes such as Norman Heatley who did all the key penicillin experiments and has saved millions of lives and limbs.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

I have relocated to the US and learned a lot about the birth of the US and have developed a great admiration for the so-called founding fathers. I would like to discuss their concerns and how they formulated the US Bill of Rights and the US Constitution – fantastic creations. I would like to have dinner with three of them Thomas Paine who lived for a while in my home town Lewes and wrote the Rights of Man; Benjamin Franklin a scientist and really the first American – who lived in London for nearly 20 years and was terribly treated just before the Revolution and Thomas Jefferson who recognised that there can be no democracy if Church and State are not separate. This latter point is of great importance today.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

I must admit that I have so many commitments that unfortunately my co-workers tend to do most of the hands-on experimental work now though I occasionally have been involved with electron microscope observations.

I have not had a lab for the last 3 years as I had to retire from my position at Sussex. I have just got a beautiful lab in a great new building at Florida State University. The last time I did an experiment all by myself with no help from anyone else!!! was in 1990 when I at last had a sample of C60 in my hands. In our C60 discovery paper in 1985 we had conjectured that C60 might be a superlubricant. After all, we thought(!!!) that as flat graphite is a lubricant – round graphite should be even better. When I took the sample and pressed it with a spatula on a glass slide it behaved like grit – disappointingly. I could not understand this until I learned that graphite is not a lubricant unless air and water intercalate between the layers – for instance it cannot be used at high altitude or on the space shuttle. I discovered that the text books are incorrect on this – the interlayer forces are not weak and graphene layers do not slide over each other in vacuo.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?

I think I would take an introduction to Quantum Electrodynamics (maybe Feynman’s) as I would want to go the next step on from Quantum Mechanics which I vaguely know a bit about already – at least enough to analyse molecular spectra and fool some people into thinking I understand QM.

If I could also take a guitar I think I would take a James Taylor LP so I could try to improve my ability – which is very limited to play the guitar. I guess it would have to take his (Live) album or Greatest hits album as I would want Carolina in my Mind as well as Sweet Baby James which are on his first two albums.

Sir Harry Kroto is in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Florida State University, and works on the mechanisms of self-assembly at nanoscale dimensions, the species which exist in carbon vapour – there are hundreds and at least 5 families, the stabilisation of small fullerenes and nanotube applications.

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