Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Harry Kroto - The Interstellar Chemist

I first met Harry in summer of 1993 - when my research group visited the Department of Chemistry (MOLS) at Sussex in advance of our relocation in October. Having tea by the lilly pond I was overwhelmed to be joining an extraordinary group of distinguished faculty. They were all incredibly friendly - and remarkably tanned and fit - due in part to regular (and competitive) lunchtime tennis matches.

Harry introduced himself, trademark sunglasses and smile - gently quizzing me about my research programme. We did not have much in common scientifically - but he was supportive of young people - and genuinely excited by all aspects of chemistry.

As time went by, we got to know each other - mainly because we used to bump into each other in the department (or the car park) at the weekend. But also from time to time - chatting about chemistry over tea or in his chaotic office.. 

He would have often been globe trotting during the week - giving lectures to large audiences on the discovery of buckyballs. But despite his great success as a researcher, Harry was committed to students and to being a part of the life of a University Department.

Harry loved giving spectroscopy lectures to the first year students…and he regularly gave research seminars - this despite the fact he was “on the road” seemingly continually - enthusing about buckyballs and nanotechnology. 

He cut a dash as a speaker - and was incredibly charismatic. He combined excitement, wonder and energy whenever he spoke about science, maths, art, the footballer Rodney Marsh, Richard Feynman, music, Sussex or a recent design he’d worked on. He had one speed in life - fast.

I remember him giving the most extraordinary research lecture on chemistry and interstellar space - not primarily about C60 - but rather fundamental spectroscopic studies…it was great work with the potential to offer insight into molecular origins of life. I recall a discussion about the origin of amino acids (celestial molecules or not?) and I did ask him if he somewhat regretted getting “diverted” by the discovery of C60…he just smiled!

In 1996 Harry (along with Curl and Smalley)  received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of fullerenes. It was the only time I ever saw him speechless - and somewhat dazed. The following day we had a reception in the Department - all the students and staff - by the pond - Kroto being congratulated by one of his “heroes” Kappa (Sir John Cornforth).  

In the 1990’s, nanotechnology was still very nascent - and the discovery of fullerenes was a watershed moment for nanoscience and perhaps for chemistry as a whole.

Despite his great successes Harry remained down to earth. Always a great believer in the skill and flair of individuals - he took great interest in people in the Department. He also enjoyed parties - I remember him coming to our house in Lewes for one. It was a glorious sunny day and it was packed with students and staff - we were drinking Harveys and red wine…some of us suggested creating a 6ft sculpture of a buckyball (diamond or graphite!) - to be entitled - Harry’s ball..he was never convinced..

Harry was also passionate about education and public engagement and the Vega Trust contains some unique footage of many of the science greats. Vega never seemed to quite take off as I thought it should - but maybe he was too far ahead of his time - or perhaps trying to do to many things at once.

Harry and I both left Sussex around the same time - him to join Florida State University. We happened to meet at another party in Brighton the day following his formal departure from Sussex - after 37 years on the faculty. I think the sunglasses were hiding the tears. 

We kept in touch from time to time - mainly by email - and I went over to see him at his Sussex home in his beloved Kingston.  We talked for some hours and he played his Martin..that was perhaps the last time I saw him..

Harry was part of a cluster of great chemists in the late 20th century at Sussex. Many have sadly died including Eaborn, Lappert, Murrell and Cornforth. These modern day explorers of the periodic table had a huge impact on organic & inorganic synthesis, polymer and materials science and chemical biology. They were rigorous, curious researchers - but each with a spirit of humanity, collegiality, warmth, good humour and humility - the epitome of a great faculty.  

Harry was a star that shone brightly - even amongst those stars. A creative academic researcher, an exceptional teacher, a committed scholar and a charismatic communicator. 

Harry - it was a pleasure to know you - you taught us a lot.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Britain needs talent

Allister Heath highlights the importance of the international student market to the UK economy. But the talent that comes into our universities from overseas is worth much more than just a short term cash injection. 

Many overseas students coming to the UK, are some of the worlds most talented, and offer an extraordinary benefit to our society and economy. They have the capacity to help UK businesses understand how to penetrate overseas markets and, as the London First study highlighted, these future leaders are more likely to do business in the UK as a result of studying here. We should also not forget that the Britain's global position in research is a consequence of being able to get the very best postgraduate students, postdoctoral researchers and professors from across the globe. Many go on to make remarkable contributions to our knowledge economy, through teaching, research, and by creating new companies and winning Nobel prizes. 

In todays competition for the brightest minds, it is vital that the UK continues to be a destination of choice for the most promising young talents, wherever they come from.  Mr Javid needs to be allowed to get on with his job and make it unambiguously clear, that Britain welcomes smart people from across the world,  and is serious about, and open for, international business.

A version of this was published as a letter in the Daily Telegraph.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Cutting tax and red tape is not enough for Britain's entrepreneurs

There is no doubt that the coalition government could do more to cut taxes and red tape, but this alone is unlikely to dramatically improve the number of globally successful entrepreneurs and businesses.

We need action on four fronts:

First, Britain needs to get better at providing working capital to those thinking of setting up or scaling their business. 

Second we need an immigration policy that is more welcoming to the talent that entrepreneurs need to grow their business. 

Third, we need to be less risk averse, and recognise that most successful entrepreneurs will fail before they succeed. 

Finally and most importantly we need to encourage our entrepreneurs to think big. There is evidence that only 1% of small businesses in the UK have high growth potential, compared with 3% in the US. 

A version of this was published as a letter in the Daily Telegraph 29 April 2014