A Discoverer Of The Buckyball Offers Tips On Winning A Nobel Prize

Oct 8, 2015
Originally published on October 8, 2015 8:32 pm

The Nobel Prize has a special aura. Winning one instantly certifies you as someone who has reached the pinnacle of science.

But what does it take to win the prize? And what does it do to your life? There are different answers for every scientist, of course. But for Nobel laureate and chemist Harold "Harry" Kroto, some of the answers might surprise you.

"I've always felt that the Nobel Prize gives me nothing as far as science is concerned," Kroto told me when I visited him earlier this year in Tallahassee, Fla.

That's because most Nobel laureates have well-established scientific careers by the time they win the prize.

Kroto won the chemistry Nobel in 1996 for a discovery he and two colleagues made more than a decade earlier. Kroto and Robert Curl, of Rice University, and another Rice chemist — Richard Smalley, who died in 2005 — found elaborate forms of carbon molecules, known as fullerenes, that arrange themselves in closed shells.

Buckminsterfullerene, or the buckyball, is the best-known. It's named for its similarity in shape to Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome. The trio's Nobel discovery of buckyballs, and the possibility that these molecules could be used as cages to store or transport other chemicals, helped kick off the field of nanotechnology.

Kroto was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, in the United Kingdom. He did his undergraduate and graduate work at the University of Sheffield. In 1996, just prior to winning the Nobel, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his contributions to chemistry — so he's more properly known as Sir Harold Kroto.

Since 2004, Kroto has been on the faculty of Florida State University. "I was hoping to stay at Florida State for a couple more years," he told me, "but I've got health issues so we're going back home to the U.K."

Kroto just turned 76. In my experience, some Nobel Prize winners can be a bit full of themselves, but Kroto is very down-to-earth.

If the prize didn't do anything for his scientific career, he said, it did put a burden of responsibility on him.

"Because, certainly, wherever you go, young people in the sciences listen to Nobel laureates," Kroto said. "And I think I have things to say which are important to me and to them and to society."

He makes a point of showing up at events where young people will listen, like science fairs.

"I think the most important thing that young people should be taught at school is how they can decide what they're being told is true," he told an audience of about 1,500 science-fair finalists last year at the International Science and Engineering Fair.

And he offered listeners another life lesson: "If doing something with second-rate effort satisfies you, find something else to do — where only your best effort will satisfy you personally.

"That's basically it," he told the students. "And I think that's a recipe for being at least satisfied with what you do in life."

Not being satisfied with second-best certainly defines Kroto's character, and probably played an important role in propelling him to the Nobel Prize.

He was a good enough tennis player to dream of winning at Wimbledon, he said, but also realized it was a dream he'd never fulfill, because, as he put it, "I kept losing."

It was the same with playing the guitar.

"I wasn't too bad," Kroto told me. "I could play in a folk group. But then Eric Clapton came along and made me look like someone with honey stuck on their fingers."

Kroto sets a high bar for himself, but that's the point. For him, playing at Wimbledon meant being able to win at Wimbledon. Playing the guitar meant being able to play with the best — the likes of Eric Clapton or Ry Cooder or Andres Segovia.

Ultimately it was in science that Kroto felt he was on a par with the best.

There is one other field where Kroto thinks he excelled: graphic arts. And there's nothing incongruous, he believes, about a scientist interested in art.

"Art and science are intrinsically the same except for one thing," Kroto told me. "The universe is in control of your science, whether it's right or wrong, and the public are in control of your art — if they're going to buy it, if you're going to make a living that way."

Whatever the public might think of Kroto's art, the universe seems to have thought very well of his science.

There's one other important thing to know about Harry Kroto if you're hunting tips for winning a Nobel.

"I never give up," he told me. "Of course, you've got to know if there's a brick wall in front of you. But, there's not often one. Never, ever give up."

Who knows what beautiful discoveries might lie ahead.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This week the Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics and medicine have been awarded. The Nobel continues to be iconic, proof that you've reached the pinnacle of science. As part of his series, Joe's Big Idea, NPR's Joe Palca has been exploring the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Today he has a story about what it takes to win a Nobel Prize and what that does to your life.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: I probably picked the worst day of the year to visit chemistry Nobel laureate Harry Kroto. He and his wife, Margaret, were busy packing up their Tallahassee, Fla., home.

MARGARET KROTO: It's a bit mad in here.

PALCA: Yes. I'm sorry - is it too early? I was worried about getting lost.

M. KROTO: Don't worry. Harry's at his computer.

PALCA: Kroto had planned to stay at Florida State University a bit longer, but health issues prompted the move back to England.

How are things?

HARRY KROTO: Well, we're packing.

PALCA: Kroto just turned 76. In my experience, some Nobel Prize winners can be a bit full of themselves. But Kroto is very down to earth.

H. KROTO: I've always felt that the Nobel Prize gives me nothing as far as science is concerned.

PALCA: That's because most Nobel laureates have well-established scientific careers by the time they win the prize. Kroto won the Nobel in 1996 for a discovery he made more than a decade earlier. He and Robert Curl and Richard Smalley found a new kind of carbon molecule known as a buckyball, named for its resemblance to Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome. The discovery of buckyballs helped kick off the field of nanotechnology. If the prize didn't do anything for his scientific career, Kroto says it did put a burden of responsibility on him.

H. KROTO: Because certainly wherever you go, young people in the sciences listen to Nobel laureates, and I think I have things to say which are important to me and to them and to society.

PALCA: And he makes a point of showing up at events where young people will listen, like science fairs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

H. KROTO: I think the most important thing that young people should be taught at school is how they can decide what they're being told is true.

PALCA: That's Kroto speaking to about 1,500 science fair finalists last year, reminding them how important it is to maintain a healthy skepticism. At the same meeting, he offered another life lesson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

H. KROTO: If you're doing something second rate effort satisfies you, find something else to do where only your best sort of effort will satisfy you personally. That's basically it, and I think that's a recipe for being at least satisfied with what you do in life.

PALCA: Not being satisfied with second-best certainly defines Kroto's character, and it probably played an important role in propelling him to the Nobel Prize. He was a good enough tennis player to dream of winning Wimbledon, but he realized it was a dream he'd never fulfill because as he puts it, I kept losing. Same with playing the guitar.

H. KROTO: I wasn't too bad. I could play in a folk group, but then Eric Clapton came along and made me look like someone with honey stuck on their fingers. And he...

PALCA: You set a high bar.

H. KROTO: Well, you know.

PALCA: And actually, I think I do know. You want to play at Wimbledon? You want to win at Wimbledon. You want to play the guitar? You want to play with the best, like Eric Clapton or Ry Cooder or Andres Segovia. Ultimately it was in science that Harry Kroto felt he was on a par with the best. There is one other field where Kroto felt he also excelled - graphic arts. Most of the books he's packing up to take back to England are art books. He says there's nothing at all incongruous about a scientist interested in art.

H. KROTO: Art and science are intrinsically the same except for one thing. The universe is in control of your science whether it's right or wrong, and the public are in control of your art - if they're going to buy it - if you're making a living that way.

PALCA: Whatever the public might think of Kroto's art, the universe seems to have thought well of his science. And when it comes to winning the Nobel Prize, there's one other important thing to know about Harry Kroto.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

H. KROTO: I never give up. Of course, you've got to know if there's a brick wall in front of you. But there's not often one. And never, ever give up.

PALCA: Because who knows what beautiful discoveries lie ahead. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.