Thursday 5 May 2016

Britain is a country which once made and has now lost and says "Farewell" to an old and gifted scientist, graphic designer and passionate educator called Harry Kroto

I first heard of Harry Kroto, who has died at the age of 76, when I was studying History as undergraduate at the University of Sussex in the mid to late 1960's. The then, 28 year old Harry, had joined the staff, teaching chemistry in 1967 and his lectures, when I graduated in 1968, were already collecting a student following. It was to be 20 years later and still teaching at Sussex, that Harry's discovery of a new form of carbon, known as C60, brought him to national and international attention :

Harold Walter Krotoschiner was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, the only child of Edith and Heinz in 1939, just after the outbreak of the Second World War. Both parents were born in Berlin, his mother into a German family and his father a Jewish one, originating from Bojanowo in Poland. Harry may well have got his creativity from his father 'who originally wanted to be a dress designer but somehow ended up running a small business printing faces and other images on toy balloons.' They both had fled Nazi Germany in 1937. Harry recalled : "The family story was that when the police arrested my father, an officer who knew us said he was going to look the other way. But he told my father to "get the hell out of here." And we did." His father leaving first and his mother a few months later.

His parents settled in London, but with the outbreak of War his 'father was interned on the Isle of Man (right) because he was considered to be an enemy alien; my mother, who was also an alien, but presumably assumed not to be an enemy one, was moved with me, when I was about one year old, from London to Bolton in 1940.' Harry was therefore denied the company of his father until he was 6 and the War was over in 1945, when his father 'became an apprentice engineer and because he was so good with his hands he managed to get a job as a fully qualified toolmaker at an engineering company in months rather than years.'

Harry was raised in Bolton, Lancashire and at school he recalled 'I was the kid with the funny name in my form. Other kids had typical Lancashire names such as Chadderton, Entwistle, Fairhurst, Higginbottom, Mottershead and Thistlethwaite. I felt as though I must have come from outer space - or maybe they did! I now realise that I had made a continual subconscious effort to blend as best I could into the environment by making my behaviour as identical as possible to that of the other kids. This was not easy indeed it was almost impossible with a couple of somewhat eccentric parents, in particular an extrovertly gregarious mother.'

He recalled : 'My parents had lost almost everything and we lived in a very poor part of Bolton. However they did everything they could to get me the best education they could. As far as they were concerned this meant getting me into Bolton School, a school with exceptional facilities and teachers.' He later confessed that he "didn't know how he got in. My father said my mother brow beat the Headmaster in the Junior School. She was a pretty interesting lady. She was middle European. She was a strong character." The school in question was Bolton Boys' Grammar School where he recalled : 'Though I did not like exams or homework anymore than other kids, I did like school and spent as much time as I could there. At first I particularly enjoyed art (and kept his frog sketch) , geography, gymnastics and woodwork' and up to the age of 13 his father 'made me finish all my homework and I had to stay up until it was not only complete but passed his inspection - midnight if necessary.'

At home he spent much of his time 'in a large front room which was my private world. As time went by it filled up with junk and in particular I had a Meccano set with which I "played" endlessly' and he believed was 'a real engineering kit and it teaches one skill which I consider to be the most important that anyone can acquire: This is the sensitive touch needed to thread a nut on a bolt and tighten them with a screwdriver and spanner just enough that they stay locked, but not so tightly that the thread is stripped or they cannot be unscrewed.'

When Harry was 16 in 1955, his father changed the family name to 'Kroto' and 'set up his own small factory again, this time to make balloons as well as print them. I spent much of my school holidays working at the factory. I was called upon to fill in everywhere, from mixing latex dyes to repairing the machinery and replacing workers on the production line. I only now realise what an outstanding training ground this had been for the development of the problem solving skills needed by a research scientist.' It amounted to his scientific apprenticeship : 'I did the stocktaking twice-a-year using a set of old scales with sets of individual gram weights (weighing balloons 10 at-a-time to obtain their average weights), my head, log tables and a slide rule to determine total numbers of various types of balloons. No paradise of microprocessor controlled balances then. After each stocktaking session I invariably felt that I never wanted to see another balloon as long as I lived.'

In view of his later pronounced views on atheism it is worth noting that Harry was brought up going to the synagogue but acknowledged that "I never believed all that stuff. I used to think as a teenager : 'If I'm the chosen people, then why are my friends all down at some coffee bar having fun while I'm sitting here in synagogue ?'" He would later say that he practised four religions : humanism, atheism, amnesty-internationalism and humorism. He conceded that : "Religion is very important to some people, but I'm an evidence-based guy. If there's no evidence, there's no bedrock to tie you down. But it's nature that's our taskmaster. It hits us on the nose time and time again. Science is based on evidence. And I can't live any other way."

Harry admitted that his main interest up the age of 15 was 'graphic art', but in the sixth form he deferred to his father, who believed that jobs in science and engineering were the best bets and so studied chemistry, physics, and mathematics and because of the encouragement of his young sixth form chemistry teacher, Harry Heaney, who gave him extra lessons and subsequently became a University Professor, he applied to study as an undergraduate at the University of Sheffield in 1958, which Heaney thought had the best Chemistry Department. Harry admitted that at school "Chemistry came more naturally. Hands on : pouring things and making smells and blowing things up and blowing teachers up if possible."

Study at Oxbridge was not really an option for Harry because 'all the normal places at Oxbridge were already assigned for the next two years to reemerging national servicemen, I needed to achieve scholarship level to get to Cambridge. This turned out to be a bit difficult as I had been assigned a college with an examination syllabus orthogonal to the one that I had studied. Ian McKellen, the actor, who was in the same year at school, only seems to have needed to remember his lines from his part as Henry V in the school play!' Harry, seen here in the production, pictured standing as the Duke of York, to the right of Ian remained friends with the actor for the rest of his life.

At Sheffield Harry 'played as much tennis as I could which helped to get me a room in a hall of residence. I played for the university tennis team and we got to the Universities Athletics Union final twice - the team would probably have been champions without me - which they were in 1964. I wanted to continue with some form of art, which was really my passion, and became art editor of 'Arrows', the student magazine, specialising in designing the magazine's covers and the screenprinted advertising posters.' Ultimately Harry 'managed to do enough chemistry in between the tennis, some snooker and football, designing covers and posters for 'Arrows', painting murals as backdrops for balls and trying to play the guitar, to get a first class honours BSc degree in 1961.' He later reflected that "For me 50% of life at university was meeting other people in other disciplines, not just chemistry and I have life long friends who were editors of newspapers and dentists and other things."

Harry now embarked on 3 years further study for his Masters and Phd in 'Molecular Spectroscopy' because : 'as the university course progressed I started to get interested in quantum mechanics and when I was introduced to spectroscopy,  I was hooked. It was fascinating to see spectroscopic band patterns which showed that molecules could count.'  In addition, it was in this time that he won a Sunday Times book jacket design competition 'the first important national prize I was to get for a very long time' and in his last year, 1964, was President of the Student Athletics Council.

His next port of call, with his wife Margaret, was Canada and his two year postdoctoral position at the 'National Research Council' in Ottawa to carry out further work in molecular spectroscopy, followed by a year at the Murray Hill Bell Laboratories in New Jersey to the age of 28 in 1967 and work on quantum chemistry. These would prove to be formative years in spectroscopy for Harry because : 'Gradually I realised that many in the field were stronger at physics than chemistry and in retrospect I subconsciously recognised that there might be a niche for me in spectroscopy research if I could exploit my relatively strong chemistry background.'

Back in Britain, Harry began teaching and research at the University of Sussex in 1967 and remembered 'thinking I would give myself five years to make a go of research and teaching and if it was not working out I would re-train to do graphic design, my first love, or go into scientific educational TV' having had an interview with the BBC before he went to Canada. Alongside his responsibilities as a teacher, by 1970  he had carried out research in the electronic spectroscopy of gas phase free radicals and rotational microwave spectroscopy, built argon ion lasers to study intermolecular interactions in liquids, carried out theoretical calculations, learned to write programs, built a microwave spectrometer and started to do photoelectron spectroscopy. In 1974 he got his own spectrometer and at 35 was able to study the carbon chain species HC5N and thus made his first step towards the discovery of C60.

In 1975, the year in which he became a full professor, his Sussex laboratory microwave measurements, along with David Walton, on long linear carbon chain molecules, led to radio astronomy observations with Canadian astronomers which had surprisingly revealed that they existed in relatively large abundances in interstellar space, as well as the outer atmospheres of carbon-rich red giants. It would be another ten years before laboratory experiments with his co-workers which simulated the chemical reactions in the atmospheres of the red giant stars uncovered the amazing fact that a stable C60 molecule could form spontaneously from a condensing carbon vapour.

So it was 1985 when the 46 year old Harry, working with Robert Curl and Richard Smalley, discovered structure of a new form of carbon, which they named 'The Buckminsterfullerene.' Harry explained : "So what had we done ? We'd vaporised graphite - sheets of hexagonal graphite. The other thing : in 1967 and I'd been at the Bell Labs in the States, we'd gone back to Montreal, because I'd spent 2 years in Canada and saw this building (the Buckmaster Fuller Geodesic Dome at Expo '67 in Montreal) and I had a photograph in a book and was fascinated by this structure. The next night Richard made a model. He started off with hexagons and when he put the pentagons, the whole thing magically closed up. It was just a cathartic time when he popped in and that was right. It had 60 vertices." Harry, concluded : "We'd vaporised carbon and produced a whole load of these balls, but we had to have proof."

In 1990 Harry and his colleagues found themselves beaten in the race for this proof "by an amazing paper by Kr├Ątachner, Lamb, Fostiropoulos and Huffman : 'Solid C60. A new form of carbon.' It was an amazing paper. There were crystals of carbon. We'd been pipped at the post by this amazing paper. It was one of the greatest pieces of chemistry on the twentieth century. Ours, the second one."

Harry never lost sight of his ambition to make a career in graphic design and continued to pursue this semi professionally, saw that the computer was starting to develop real potential as an artistically creative device, but was forced to concede : 'The discovery of C60 in 1985 caused me to shelve my dream of setting up a studio specialising in scientific graphic design.'

In 1995 he jointly set up the 'Vega Science Trust a UK' educational charity to create high quality science films including lectures, interviews with Nobel Laureates, discussion programmes, careers and teaching resources for TV and Internet Broadcast and produced 280 plus programmes of which 50 were broadcast on BBC TV. All programmes were streamed for free from the Vega website which acted as a TV science channel and the website, designed by Harry, was accessed by over 165 countries up to its closure in 2012.

Harry shared the 1996 'Nobel Prize in Chemistry' with Robert Curl and Richard Smalley and unsurprisingly and with perfect self-effacement said, when interviewed in 2009, : "I don't do science to compete with somebody else, to win prizes. I just do science because it is a good living. It's something I'm quite good at. I wouldn't say I'm brilliant at it, but something, sometimes, I enjoy doing. We didn't make that discovery to win the Nobel Prize. It never crossed my mind."

The following year, at the age of 58 Harry said : 'Over the years I have given many lectures for public understanding of science and some of my greatest satisfaction has come in conversations with school children, teachers, lay people, retired research workers who have often exhibited a fascination for science as a cultural activity and a deep and understanding of the way nature works.'

In 2001, Harry the Graphic Designer made his presence felt with his design of the Nobel UK Stamp for Chemistry and in recognition of the approbation of his peers, from 2002–2004, he served as President of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Two years later, prior to the Blair/Bush invasion of Iraq on the pretext that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, he initiated and organised the publication of a letter, composed by his friend the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Sir Joseph Rotblat, signed by a dozen British Nobel Laureates and published in the 'Times' newspaper :

In 2004, at the age of 65 and forced into statutory retirement in Britain, he left the University of Sussex to take up a new position as 'Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry' at Florida State University and carried out research on carbon vapour and the mechanism of formation and properties of nano-structured systems.

He started his new new Internet educational initiative, his 'Global Education Outreach in Science, Engineering and Technology' project known as 'GEOSET' in 2007 aimed to help teachers improve the quality of science education in schools worldwide. It was underpinned by his belief that : "you can't teach things about which you're not passionate. So what I try to do is to get people who are brilliant teachers and capture those nuggets of genius, specific ideas that they've found by experience good at transmitting enthusiasm, empathy for those things to the students."

In 2008 at the 'Beyond Belief Conference' he offered an analysis of the growing evidence of the advance of religious belief in institutional life in the USA including television : "Gene Roddenberry was really a humanist and atheist, very strongly so and this came through his programs when he was alive and the rational spirituality was a very important aspect and he was a sort of 'evangelist for humanism'. This has changed since he's dead. 'The Next Generation' starts to bring in mystical and religious issues and is treating it in a very, very different way from the way it was treated before."

As recently as 2010 and at the age of 71, he still maintained that : "I still personally have a major passion, probably even more so than science and that's Graphic Design and get more involved in my educational programme. I'm tying to explore the ways the internet can be used more effectively to help teachers teach science better. I have a mission to ensure that people understand science. Science is about asking questions, curiosity and I'm prepared to answer ant question you throw at me."

In the same year along with 54 other public figures, he signed an open letter published in 'The Guardian' stating their opposition to Pope Benedict XVI's state visit to Britain on the grounds that 'as well as a religious leader, the pope is a head of state, and the state and organisation of which he is head has been responsible for: opposing the distribution of condoms and so increasing large families in poor countries and the spread of Aids; promoting segregated education; denying abortion to even the most vulnerable women; opposing equal rights for lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender people; and failing to address the many cases of abuse of children within its own organisation.'

He returned to his old secondary school in 2013 and while talking to sixth formers about the 'Taylor Expansion' and the power of differentiation his face lit up : "And I saw that and I thought : I could be happy if I'd discovered that and it's that aspect that I feel sorry that only one in about 20 kids will ever get that feeling : 'Well that's really clever and beautiful.' In the same way that Ry Cooder's music, that slide guitar. You know I used to try slide guitar and it's not easy and I see the same appreciation of beauty in the music and painting in particular as I do in something like mathematics, physics or DNA."

Harry was in a reflective mood last summer after he had returned to Britain from the USA with 'health issues' connected with the motor neuron condition, Lou Gehrig's disease, when he recorded his thoughts on '60 years : Russell Einstein Manifesto' : "I think what has happened is that governments are no longer in control and in future, young people who are in positions of power, they are responsible and I think they now have to direct their efforts to change the attitudes of people who are at the head of big business. I am reminded of the great line of Joe Rotblat which is : 'Remember your humanity and forget the rest.' I just love that statement, that comment and I use it very often and because we see industry, how making money seems to be more important in controlling the way that transfers and people behave, that's the big problem, because I think many of them, not only have they forgotten their humanity, I'm not even sure they ever had any."

In 2015 he had the pleasure of seeing the 'Children's Buckyball Workshop' organised in San Luis Potosi Mexico' start a trend balancing Buckyballs on their heads :

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