Sante Di renzo

dalla chimica all'editoria

In memory of Harold Kroto

I first met Sir Harold W. Kroto in the summer of 2004. I had just published in the series "Dialogues" the book Le molecole dei viventi (The molecules of the Living) by Max Perutz, who was also a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry. It was precisely that book which convinced Kroto of the integrity of my publishing project. Like myself, he had been involved in scientific divulgation to the "Layman" as one of his educational commitments. In 1995 he founded the Vega Science Trust, a charity that still produces high-quality scientific films, interviews and conferences of Nobel laureates, to be disseminated over the Internet and on television. 

The BBC has broadcasted almost all of over one hundred films produced by Kroto, who had also designed his own website himself (www.vega.org.uk) - which acts as a TV channel - thanks to its youthful graphical expertise. Kroto has always been an eclectic character: constantly yearning, with a curiosity devoid of prejudices. He called himself a follower of four religions: humanism, atheism, Amnesty International and humor. 

When young people asked for advice he always answered with a single recipe: have fun; do not waste time in competing, focus on the objective. The interview with him that summer at the University of Sussex, gave birth to a book – Molecole su misura (Customized Molecules) - much more than a biography or a chemistry book, it was an adventure. Kroto's life has been very eventful. 

Soon after he was born, his family - his father was a native of Silesia and his mother was from Berlin - left Germany for London to escape the Nazis. The war was for the Krotoschiner family (this was their original surname) a harsh experience, leading to a cancellation of their dual Jewish and German identity, which prompted them to shorten their surname in 1955 by omitting the Germanic suffix.

Yet of those years, Harold only remembered his formative experiences: he was grateful to his father, who made balloons, for teaching him the rudiments of chemistry and physics. He was a staunch fan of Meccan, which he had played as a child. He had undertaken scientific studies in the full conviction that science was, above all, a cultural activity, beneficial to the understanding of the world. 

Moreover, he maintained this simple approach to life to the end. I remember the campus where I met him - after aimlessly ambling for hours in what was a campus in the city – I found his modest office which, just like that of Max Perutz in Cambridge, was a modestly furnished, cramped room with piles of books, theses and folders scattered everywhere and a blackboard full of symbols. No one around him seemed to pay any importance to the fact that he was a Nobel Prize winner, but this is what it is like in the scientific field: you build on your field, without cheating, day after day, and the Nobel is a sort of lifetime achievement award. 

Chemists are among the most reclusive scientists, perhaps because in the "outside" world it is easier to remember Einstein's relativity - even if few really understand it - rather than the hemoglobin discovered by Perutz or molecule C60 discovered by Kroto. So what is C60? Moreover, what is it used for? In 1985 Kroto had already been engaged in the study of composed molecular carbon chains, the basic constituent of life, for many years. His curiosity and eclecticism led him to seek carbon chains even in interstellar space. It was here that Harold “found" Buckminsterfullerene (C60), the most stable molecule of the carbon allotropes (allotropes are molecules that are made only of carbon, such as diamonds and graphite). Together with Curl and Smalley, who shared the Nobel with him, and Health and O'Brien, Kroto discovered fullerenes: carbon chains made up of 60-70 carbon atoms linked together. 

The practical use of fullerenes range from nanotechnology - since they are excellent superconductors - to lubricant for engines, antibiotics and cancer treatments. Buckminsterfullerene - whose curious name comes from the inventor of the geodesic dome, Richard Buckminster Fuller, which it resembles in its spatial structure, is an unknown molecule in name but not in form, and is shaped like a soccer ball. Its tensile structure, i.e. its ability to exert an equivalent force on all points where the bonds are formed, makes it virtually rock hard, unmodifiable. It seems a strange twist of fate that a man who was the son of a manufacturer of balloons, with a passion for graphics and geometric shapes, discovered a perfectly shaped ball. Then again, as Kroto said: nothing gets lost. Everything eventually returns. All things contribute to organize one’s mind in a certain manner.

Sante Di Renzo

Roma 11.05.2016