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Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials Colloquium Nobel Laureate Sir Harold W. Kroto


29 May 2012 FWN-Building 5111.0022, Nijenborgh 4, 9747 AG, Groningen
Speaker: Sir Harold W. Kroto
Affiliation: Florida State University
Title: Carbon in Nano and Outer Space
Date: Tue May 29, 2012
Start: 15.30 Doors open and coffee available at 15.00
Location: FWN-Building 5111.0022


The element Carbon has played a fascinating, curious and crucial role in almost every aspect of the development of our understanding of both the physical and natural sciences.  The fact that the element is at all abundant is due to a curious set of coincidences involving its nucleosynthesis from helium in stars.  If one furthermore adds into the overall carbon equation its uniquely profuse chemistry, ie Organic Chemistry which is also the basis of biology, it is hard to conceive that life could be based on any other element.  


The most recent big surprise that the element had up its sleeve was the existence of C60, Buckminsterfullerene, the third well-defined form of carbon – the other two being graphite and diamond.  The discovery of this molecule and its siblings (the whole family now known as the Fullerenes) was made serendipitously during laboratory experiments which attempted to explain the chemical synthesis of some unexpectedly long linear carbon chain molecules which we detected in the interstellar medium.  Follow up work from the C60 discovery also led to the re-discovery of the carbon nanotubes which promise paradigm shifting advances in materials engineering.


Compelling support for the idea that C60 existed in the shadowy corners of the Universe since time immemorial, was its serendipitous discovery during laboratory experiments designed to simulate the atmospheric conditions in cool red giant carbon stars.  This conjecture was confirmed in 2010 by tell-tale signatures found in infra red spectra obtained by NASA’s Spitzer satellite telescope, a beautiful illustration of the remarkable way in which the fascination with space has catalysed fundamental breakthroughs in general science with major implications for innovative technological applications on Earth. 


In these difficult times this account provides evidence which illustrates the vital role of fundamental cross-disciplinary research. The history of scientific progress carries a serious health warning for those who think that fundamental science can be steered by bureaucratic decision-making.


Last modified:22 October 2012 2.30 p.m.