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British Carbon Group - Remembering Sir Harry Kroto

Sir Harry Kroto

15 Aug 2016

Sir Harold Walter Kroto FRS (who only wanted to be known as Harry), was an honorary member of SCI, and was involved with SCI through our awards and conferencing activity.

In fact, Sir Harry delivered the first ever Ubbelohde Lectures at Carbon 2006 at Aberdeen on the topic of Architecture in Nanospace. He presented a talk on Chemistry in Nano and Outer space at the International Year of Chemistry event at Charterhouse School in 2011. He gave a heart-warming and hugely entertaining talk and reflection on his experiences and the events leading up to the discovery of C60 at the Green Chemistry in Ireland Conference in 2012.

Harry passed away on 30 April 2016, and his loss was duly noted by the sector and in the general press. Many of the SCI British Carbon Group knew him not only as an inspiring scientific leader and researcher but as a friend. Below are experiences and stories shared by those who had met and worked with Harry.

Working with Harry Kroto

I studied for my PhD with Harry Kroto from 1989-1993, working on the extraction of C60 and then stayed on in the group for about 10 years before becoming a science communicator. It was a fabulous time and a real privilege to be able to spend so much time working closely with such a remarkable inspiring, creative and kind man.

Harry had a great ability to get to the heart of a problem; it was very interesting and inspirational to watch this going on in a meeting or in a conversation. It sometimes made me almost laugh out loud when I had been struggling to understand something for ages and then to have it explained so quickly and simply! Part of this I think was his ability to concentrate deeply, but perhaps more importantly his ability to see things clearly.

Harry had a vital enthusiasm and interest in the world - chatting to him was inspirational, clarifying and often a lot of fun. He was often very generous sharing his ideas and work. His energy and success also helped a lot of people all around the world, to follow their own aspirations and inspirations. He thought creative freedom was important for each of us and for the future of the world.

Some stories

A special treat
Harry and I presented 100's of C60 workshops both together and separately. On one occasion we were giving a workshop to about 100 eight to nine year olds and the Head Teacher introduced us saying 'you are getting a very special treat today'. Of course what teachers mean and what children hear are often different things. The teacher meant the 'treat' was to meet Sir Harry Kroto. As was usual in our workshops half the event was a set of fun science exercises and then the second half would be getting the kids to make up their own C60 model. At this halfway stage one of the children came up to Harry and I. He had obviously been thinking a lot about what the 'special treat' could possibly be and took us both aside and said hopefully, 'is it pizza?' Luckily children are very resilient and he seemed happy enough to make his Buckyball!

The BA Festival and Patrick Reams
In 1994 Harry and a BBC producer Patrick Reams, set up the Vega Science Trust. Vega was managed by Gill Watson for many years. We were at a BA Festival of science meeting one year and Harry and Patrick were giving a talk about the Trust. We had all met up for breakfast and were now about to pop over to the venue in Harry's car. I had got in the front seat, Harry in the driving seat. Patrick had opened the back door and thrown his case onto the back seat but could not get in because of piles of gear. So he slammed the door aiming to go around the back of the car and get in via the other door. Harry was keen to get to the venue in plenty of time to make sure the video projector worked ok, so when Patrick had slammed the door we speed off at high speed. We were both talking to Patrick from the front of the car but he was very quiet. Eventually we came to a set of red traffic lights so we had to stop and on turning around to talk to Patrick he wasn't there !! 'Patrick, where's Patrick!?' Harry exclaimed! Looking through the car window I could see Patrick 'pegging it' along the road trying to get to us before the lights changed. The thing is that when he got to us and finally got his breath back, he wasn't angry at all. Quite the opposite, we all laughed - you just could not really get angry with an impatient but enthusiastic Harry - it's just the way he was.

My first lesson with Harry - seeing things clearly
I spent a few months analysing data sent back from the Ghotto space probe; results that would be my first published scientific paper! In 1980's Nasa sent a space probe to analyse the composition of comet Halley’s tail (the material ejected into space from the comet when it gets heated up by being close to the Sun). In my first year of my PhD I would use Friday mornings to go over to the Sussex University library to read the latest science journals such as Nature and Science.

The first papers had come out on the Ghoto mission data and so I photocopied them to show Harry. I knocked on his office door, he said "Come in" and as I laid the paper on his table I said 'Wow! Harry, have you seen this ... its ..' , I was going to say great but he but-in and finished off my sentence by saying '... isn't it crap!'. I could not believe my ears. Nasa has predicted what they might find (a type of polymer), had built the probe, sent it millions of miles through space, it had successfully met Comet Halley and also successfully sent back data AND the data fitted the prediction - what was there not to like!? It was one of those 'blow your brains moments'. I thought 'have I just signed up for 4 years with a mad person!' Harry said the polymer might be there but he told me to drop everything I was doing and to focus on this project. 'Go and get a random mixture of molecules, find out how they will fragment and plot the data and come back to me with the results'. He told me to take the Urey-Miller primitive atmosphere experiment results as the 'random' mixture and to get Simon Balm (a final year PhD student) to check the results and write a program to integrate to the same resolution as the Nasa data. We did just that and found the 'random' organic data fitted perfectly! Of course it did what else would you expect - once you think about it properly! Harrys genius of course was not, in this case, his encyclopaedic knowledge of chemistry, astronomy or physics, it was his ability to see the 'wider picture', to clearly see what was most likely. He was not put-off or swayed by others’ theories or eminence (Nasa). He was simply able to ask 'what is the most likely explanation of this data?' That was a massive lesson for me - a real step change and inspiration for me. I never really quite got over it; it changed my whole idea of what science could be. He showed how a few minutes of clear thinking could provide a more realistic explanation of this problem than years of other people’s work and millions of dollars! In the end, seeing things clearly is what it's all about - but it’s often surprisingly hard to do.

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