Research Profile

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.