Harry Kroto

May 2, 2016

by Richard Dawkins


Harry Kroto is dead. One of the most distinguished scientists of our time, Sir Harry shared the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry with his co-discoverers of Buckminsterfullerene, the astonishing C60 molecule which has become known by his informal coining, “Buckyballs”.

I didn’t know him particularly well, but we spent time together at the 2014 STARMUS Festival in Tenerife. We were thrown together by his confiding in me, on the first day of the conference, that he had just been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. I think I was one of few people there who knew, and we had many conversations, touching on this shadow hanging over him but mostly about science and his passionate hatred of religion, as we walked the grounds and had meals together during the course of the conference. Among other things he convinced me that, however alien and strange life elsewhere in the universe might be, we can be confident that it must be carbon based. No other atom has what it takes. No other atom can link arms, and do the chemical equivalent of Tinkertoy which complex biochemistry demands  – a property which, incidentally, is carried to its purest form by Buckyballs.

Harry’s own lecture was the star turn of the meeting. Mostly because of his personal charm coupled with shining intelligence. But also he was the most ingenious user of PowerPoint I ever heard. He exploited the fact that PowerPoint (but, lamentably, not  the otherwise preferable Keynote) has hyperlinks with what amount to subroutine jumps. Harry realised what this could do, and he exploited its power to great effect. Any lecturer re-uses many of the same slides, in different permutations in different lectures. This leads to massive wastage of disk space, with duplicates of the same slides lurking in different parts of many presentations. The solution is to keep a library of slides and combinations of slides. Each slide is represented only once. Each lecture consists of a series of “calls” to the library. Harry was adept at manipulating these “calls” as he lectured. Not only does his method economise on storage. It also helps the lecturer keep a coherent grip on his material. Rather than being faced with a bewildering flood of slides, the lecturer sees what amounts to a series of main headings and subheadings, his “library calls”, representing the high-level logical structure of his talk. At the same time the audience is treated to a dazzling visual display. Lecturing technique may seem relatively trivial but the same combination of logical, systematic organization, flowering into imaginative visualisation, surely underlies the thought processes of a great scientist.

I first appreciated his technique when I invited Harry to Oxford to give the 2006 Charles Simonyi Lecture. His arresting title was “Can the Internet Save the Enlightenment?” The lecture included a splendid, thundering broadside against the Templeton Foundation and its well-heeled, soft-soap mission to subvert science. Notwithstanding my reputation for hostility to religion, I would never have dared aspire to such outspoken invective, and I was silently cheering him on while feeling a little apprehensive as the sponsor of the lecture. Was he going too far? But Harry had the eminence, and the charm, to get away with it.

His hatred of religion was matched by – I think largely inspired by – his equally passionate love of science and his commitment to sharing his enthusiasm. He set up the Vega Science Trust (http://www.vega.org.uk) , a charity devoted to producing films to teach science, including a series of short vignettes in which he encouraged scientists, including many Nobel prizewinners, to communicate their love of science to young people.

Harry Kroto had a childlike quality, in the best sense of the word. It’s often been said that scientists need the curiosity of a child. Harry had that, in spades, together with the childlike imagination of an artist – and he was indeed an accomplished creative artist who won many awards for his graphic designs. But he also had the rebelliousness of youth which never left him, the unstuffy instinct to defy convention which led to his being seen as something of a maverick figure, not quite trusted by the scientific establishment.  A little like his fellow Yorkshireman Fred Hoyle, but with none of Hoyle’s tendency to the rebarbative.  And Harry had a matured version of the charm of childhood, which I think is epitomised in the photograph which heads my lament.

3 comments on “Harry Kroto

  • “It is disgracefully unethical for individuals who rail against the teaching of evolution to young people as a proven ‘fact’ to accept, either for themselves or their families, the humanitarian benefits accruing from medical scientific research underpinned by the theory. Evolution is the backbone of biology, in particular molecular biology, and such people should be asked to forgo all medical treatments – including almost all drugs – that could not have been developed if previous generations of young biology and medical students had not been taught evolutionary concepts to aid the development of medical advances.” — Harold Kroto

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  • A man who credited Meccano as a root of his interests, should have such a toy created in his honour.

    K’Nex/Tinkertoy would be the perfect channel for it. Given his proclivity for cloud based stored forms I propose Hasboro start a web based depository for 3D printable component designs, compatible with K’Nex/Tinkertoy to create biochemical and carbon mech models with appropriate bond angles. Add in some great design, as the man himself would, and the bond elements might be given links of a more sculpted quality to reflect field strengths.

    Biochemical click together kits exist already, but with the advent of good enough 3D printers for a few hundred pounds this could be a great way of distributing a much more open ended and versatile toy.

    Call it C6 or C60

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