Sir Harold Kroto

On this date in 1939, Nobel Prize winner Sir Harold Walter "Harry" Kroto (originally Krotoschiner) was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, England. His parents were both German but had to leave Berlin in 1937 because his father was Jewish. His mother, who was not Jewish, left Berlin a few months later to be with her husband. Kroto's father had wanted to be a dress designer, but ended up running a small business, painting images on balloons. Shortly after setting up another small business in London, the Second World War broke out and Kroto's father was interned on the Isle of Man since he was considered to be an enemy alien. A year later, Kroto's mother moved with her small son to Bolton, Lancashire, England, where he grew up and attended school. When the war ended, Kroto's father reunited with his family, becoming first an apprentice engineer and then a toolmaker. In 1955, Harold's father changed their family name to Kroto, so that it would sound less Jewish. That same year he began a small factory, making balloons as well as printing them, where Harold worked many school holidays over the years, learning all of the facets of the factory. He said that this provided him with problem-solving skills which he later used as a research scientist. "I, like almost all chemists I know, was attracted by the smells and bangs that endowed chemistry with that light but charismatic element of danger which is now banned from the classroom . . . the wimpish chemistry training that schools are now forced to adopt is one possible reason that chemistry is no longer attracting as many talented and adventurous youngsters as it once did. If the decline in hands-on science educaton is not redressed, I doubt that we shall survive the 21st century" (Nobel Prize Autobiography). Kroto attended Sheffield University, considered at that time to have the best chemistry department in the UK. Harold also played tennis and soccer, learned to play the guitar and became art editor of the student magazine, winning a Sunday Times bookjacket design competition. His cover designs were also featured in Modern Publicity magazine, an international annual featuring the best in professional graphic design.

Graduating with honors in 1961 and receiving his Ph.D. in 1964, Kroto did his postdoctoral research at the National Research Council in Canada and Bell Laboratories in the U.S. He returned to England in 1967 to teach and do research at the University of Sussex, looking for carbon chains in interstellar space. Aware of the laser spectroscopy work being done by Richard Smalley and Robert Curl at Rice University in Texas, Kroto contacted them and suggested they use the Rice apparatus to simulate the carbon chemistry that occurs in the atmosphere of a carbon star. This experiment not only supported their theory, but revealed an unexpected result, the existence of a new molecule, the C60 species, aka buckminsterfullerene (buckyballs). This discovery earned Curl, Kroto and Smalley the shared Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996. In 2004, he joined the faculty at Florida State University as a professor of chemistry, where he continued his work on "buckyballs" and spearheaded the development of GEOSET (Global Educational Outreach for Science, Engineering and Technology). GEOSET is a growing online cache of video teaching modules that are available for free. He died on April 30, 2016, in Lewes, East Sussex, from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at  age 76.

Photo by Pd1000 under CC 3.0

"There are serious problems confronting society and a "humanitarian" God would not have allowed the unaccountable atrocities carried out in the name of any philosophy, religious or otherwise, to happen to anyone let alone to his/her/its chosen people. The desperate need we have for such organisations as Amnesty International has become, for me, one of the pieces of incontrovertible evidence that no divine (mystical) creator (other than the simple Laws of Nature) exists. . . . I am a devout atheist --nothing else makes any sense to me and I must admit to being bewildered by those, who in the face of what appears so obvious, still believe in a mystical creator."

—From his Nobel Prize autobiography

Compiled by Jane Esbensen

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