Harry Kroto, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his role in the discovery of the buckyball, a spherical carbon molecule that excited researchers around the world with its promise of advancing scientific understanding of a chemical building block of life, died April 30 near Lewes, England. He was 76.
His death was announced by the University of Sussex in England, where Dr. Kroto spent the early decades of his career, and Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he had continued his research since 2004. The cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, according to his wife, Margaret Kroto.
Dr. Kroto was trained in spectroscopy, a field of science in which the spectrum of light from an object, such as a star, is studied to infer that object’s chemical composition. He was researching the carbon molecules in interstellar space when he initiated a fruitful collaboration with two American chemists at Rice University in Houston: Richard E. Smalley and Robert F. Curl Jr.
The three, who together would receive the Nobel, met with other colleagues at a high-powered Rice laboratory in 1985.
“This lab,” one collaborator, Jim Heath, told the journal Science, “is like being in an Army helicopter or something: You have five lasers going over your head; it’s noisy; all kinds of pumps are going and data coming on screen. But Harry, whenever he saw anything a little bit unusual, he would really key in on it.”
Over an intense period of days, Dr. Kroto and his collaborators conducted experiments that resulted in the discovery of a carbon molecule unlike graphite or diamonds, the only previously known forms of the substance.
The molecule they chanced upon contained 60 carbon atoms and was highly stable. When they assembled it in a model, the molecule revealed itself to be beautiful: It resembled the geodesic dome, such as the one at Epcot center at Walt Disney World, patented by the inventor R. Buckminster Fuller.
(To those unfamiliar with geodesic domes, the molecule might resemble a soccer ball.)
The scientists agreed to name the molecule buckminsterfullerene, or fullerene. In popular parlance, the molecules became known as buckyballs.
Besides the immediate advancement in pure science, the findings seemed to promise future applications in fields as varied as superconductivity and medicine. The study of buckyballs led to the discovery of cylindrical carbon structures called carbon nanotubes, which propelled the field of nanotechnology.
“From a theoretical viewpoint,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences declared in awarding the Nobel, “the discovery of the fullerenes has influenced our conception of such widely separated scientific problems as the galactic carbon cycle and classical aromaticity, a keystone of theoretical chemistry.”
Harold Walter Krotoschiner was born in Wisbech, England, on Oct. 7, 1939. His father, who was Jewish, and his mother had come to England as refugees from Nazi Germany and eventually changed the family name to Kroto.
His father ran a small business making balloons and emblazoning them with images. From a young age, the future Dr. Kroto nurtured an interest in graphic design.
Another love was music. He once told National Public Radio that he had thought of a career as a guitarist until “Eric Clapton came along and made me look like someone with honey stuck on their fingers.” Speaking to students as a Nobel laureate, he encouraged them to pursue endeavors in which they would never be satisfied with second-best.
He studied at the University of Sheffield, where he received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1961 and a doctorate in molecular spectroscopy in 1964.
Dr. Kroto was a forceful advocate for the teaching of science. He helped found the Global Educational Outreach for Science Engineering and Technology, an initiative to provide free online educational material in the sciences. He returned to England from Florida last year.
Survivors include his wife of more than 50 years, the former Margaret Hunter of Lewes; and two sons, Stephen Kroto of Lewes and David Kroto of London.
In the years since its discovery, the buckyball has attracted interest not only from professional scientists but also from amateur enthusiasts, perhaps in part because of the whimsical nature of its name. Dr. Kroto traced his fascination with the molecule’s namesake to a 1967 trip to the World’s Fair in Montreal, where he and his young son entered one of Fuller’s geodesic domes.
“I . . . remembered pushing my small son, in his pram, along the ramps and up the escalators, high up among the exhibition stands and close to the delicate network of struts from which the edifice was constructed,” Dr. Kroto told Science. “This experience left an image, which could not be erased, in my mind.”
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