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Prize category:

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1996

Robert F. Curl Jr., Sir Harold Kroto, Richard E. Smalley

Sir Harold W. Kroto

Born: 7 October 1939, Wisbech, United Kingdom

Affiliation at the time of the award: University of Sussex, Brighton, United Kingdom

Prize motivation: "for their discovery of fullerenes"

Field: Organic chemistry, structural chemistry

Sir Harold W. Kroto


I was the kid with the funny name in my form. That is one of the earliest memories I have of school (except for being forced to finish school dinners). Other kids had typical Lancashire names such as Chadderton, Entwistle, Fairhurst, Higginbottom, Mottershead and Thistlethwaite though I must admit that there were the odd Smith, Jones and Brown. My name at that time was Krotoschiner (my father changed it to Kroto in 1955 so it is now occasionally thought, by some, to be Japanese). I felt as though I must have come from outer space - or maybe they did! I now realise that I had made a continual subconscious effort to blend as best I could into the environment by making my behaviour as identical as possible to that of the other kids. This was not easy indeed it was almost impossible with a couple of somewhat eccentric parents (in particular an extrovertly gregarious mother) who were born in Berlin and came to Britain as refugees in their late 30's.

Bolton is a once prosperous but then (the fifties) decaying northern English town which is rightfully proud of its legendary contributions to the industrial revolution - the likes of Samuel Crompton and Richard Arkwright were Boltonians. Indeed we lived in Arkwright St. and I shall always remember walking to school each morning past the windows of cotton mills through which I could see the vast rows of massive looms and spinning frames operated by women who had been working from at least six o'clock in the morning, if not earlier.

My efforts to merge into the background meant, among other things such as fighting (literally) for survival, speaking only English (all real Englishmen expect others to speak English) - though I allowed myself to absorb just enough German to understand what my parents were saying about me when they spoke German. One specific memory was that when I did particularly poorly at French one year my Father gave me a very large French dictionary for my birthday - was I pleased!!!

My name seems to have its origins in Silesia where my father's family originated and there is a town in Poland now called Krotoszyn (then Krotoschin). My father's family came from Bojanowo and set up a shop in Berlin where my father was born in 1900. The original family house, which was then a shop, still exists in the main square in Bojanowo. I have an old photograph which shows the sign "I. Krotoschiner" in gothic characters emblazened over the window. I visited the town recently and, apart from cars rather than horsedrawn carts and the sign, little has changed - the Hotel Centralny is now the Restauracja Centralny and the aerials on the roofs are still there!

My father, who originally wanted to be a dress designer but somehow ended up running a small business printing faces and other images on toy balloons, had to leave Berlin in 1937 and my mother (who was not Jewish) followed a few months later. I always felt that my parents had a really raw deal, as did almost everyone born in Europe at the turn of the Century. The First World War took place while they were teenagers, then the Depression struck and Hitler came to power while they were young adults. They had to leave their home country and then the Second World War broke out and they had to leave their home again. When my father was 45 he had to find a new profession, when he was 55 he set up his business again and when he was 65 he realised I was not going to take it over. He sold the business and retired in his early 70's.

I do not know how my father managed to catch the train to take him over the border into Holland in 1937. For as long as I knew him he was always late for everything; he invariably missed every train or bus he was supposed to catch. He told me that this was because he was called up in 1917 to go to the Front but arrived at the station just as the train was pulling out. When he asked the station master what he should do, he was told to go home. From then on he decided to make a point of missing trains and buses, but seems to have made one exception, in 1937. My parents managed to set up their small business again in London but the effort was, of course, shortlived due to the outbreak of the War in September 1939. I was born in Wisbech (a very small town in Cambridgeshire to which my mother was evacuated) on Oct 7th 1939 in the first month of the War so I was a war baby. My father was interned on the Isle of Man because he was considered to be an enemy alien; my mother (who was also an alien, but presumably assumed not to be an enemy one) was moved (with me - when I was about one year old) from London to Bolton in 1940. After the war my father became an apprentice engineer and because he was so good with his hands he managed to get a job as a fully qualified toolmaker at an engineering company in months rather than years.

In 1955, with help from friends in England and Germany from before the war, he set up his own small factory again, this time to make balloons as well as print them. I spent much of my school holidays working at the factory. I was called upon to fill in everywhere, from mixing latex dyes to repairing the machinery and replacing workers on the production line. I only now realise what an outstanding training ground this had been for the development of the problem solving skills needed by a research scientist. I am also sure that what I was doing then would contravene present-day health and safety at work regulations. I would have been considered too young and inexperienced to do the sort of maintenance work that I was often called upon to do. I did the stocktaking twice-a-year using a set of old scales with sets of individual gram weights (weighing balloons 10 at-a-time to obtain their average weights), my head, log tables and a sliderule to determine total numbers of various types of balloons. No paradise of microprocessor controlled balances then. After each stocktaking session I invariably felt that I never wanted to see another balloon as long as I lived.

My parents had lost almost everything and we lived in a very poor part of Bolton. However they did everything they could to get me the best education they could. As far as they were concerned this meant getting me into Bolton School, a school with exceptional facilities and teachers. As a consequence of misguided politically motivated educational policies this school has become an independent school and it bothers me that, were I today in the same financial position as my parents had been when I was a child, I would not be able to send my children to this school. Though I did not like exams or homework any more than other kids, I did like school and spent as much time as I could there. At first I particularly enjoyed art, geography, gymnastics and woodwork. At home I spent much of the time by myself in a large front room which was my private world. As time went by it filled up with junk and in particular I had a Meccano set with which I "played" endlessly. Meccano which was invented by Frank Hornby around 1900, is called Erector Set in the US. New toys (mainly Lego) have led to the extinction of Meccano and this has been a major disaster as far as the education of our young engineers and scientists is concerned. Lego is a technically trivial plaything and kids love it partly because it is so simple and partly because it is seductively coloured. However it is only a toy, whereas Meccano is a real engineering kit and it teaches one skill which I consider to be the most important that anyone can acquire: This is the sensitive touch needed to thread a nut on a bolt and tighten them with a screwdriver and spanner just enough that they stay locked, but not so tightly that the thread is stripped or they cannot be unscrewed. On those occasions (usually during a party at your house) when the handbasin tap is closed so tightly that you cannot turn it back on, you know the last person to use the washroom never had a Meccano set.

At no point do I ever remember taking religion very seriously or even feeling that the biblical stories were any different from fairy stories. Certainly none of it made any sense. By comparison the world in which I lived, though I might not always understand it in all aspects, always made a lot of sense. Nor did it make much sense that my friends were having a good time in a coffee bar on Saturday mornings while I was in schul singing in a language I could not understand. Once while my father and I were fasting, I remember my mother having some warm croissants - and did they smell good! I decided to have one too - ostensibly a heinous crime. I waited for a 10 ton "Monty Python" weight to fall on my head! It didn't. Some would see this lack of retribution as proof of a merciful God (or that I was not really Jewish because my mother wasn't), but I drew the logical (Occam's razor) conclusion that there was "nothing" there. 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.

The illogical excuses, involving concepts such as free will(!), convoluted into confusing arguments by clerics and other self-appointed guardians of universal morality, have always seemed to me to be just so much fancy (or actually clumsy) footwork devised to explain why the fascinating and beautifully elegant world I live in operates exactly the way one would expect it to in the absence of a mystical power. Of course the excuses have been honed and polished over millenia to retain a hold over those unwilling or unable to accept that, as a Croatian friend of mine once neatly put it, "When you've had it you've had it".

The humanitarian philosophies that have been developed (sometimes under some religious banner and invariably in the face of religious opposition) are human inventions, as the name implies - and our species deserves the credit. 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. However I can see that the promise of infinite immortality is a more palatable proposition than the absolute certainty of finite mortality which those of us who are subject to free thought (as opposed to free will) have to look forward to and many may not have the strength of character to accept it.

[After all this, I have ended up a supporter of ideologies which advocate the right of the individual to speak, think and write in freedom and safety (surely the bedrock of a civilised society). I have very serious personal problems when confronted by individuals, organisations and regimes which do not accept that these freedoms are fundamental human rights. I feel one must oppose those who claim that the "good" of the community must come before that of the individual - this claim is invariably used to justify oppression by the state. Furthermore there has never been any consensus on what the "good" of the community actually consists of, whereas for individuals there is little difficulty. Thus I am a supporter of Amnesty International, a humanist and an atheist. I believe in a secular, democratic society in which women and men have total equality, and individuals can pursue their lives as they wish, free of constraints - religious or otherwise. I feel that the difficult ethical and social problems which invariably arise must be solved, as best they can, by discussion and am opposed to the crude simplistic application of dogmatic rules invented in past millennia and ascribed to a plethora of mystical creators - or the latest invention; a single creator masquerading under a plethora of pseudonyms. Organisations which seek political influence by co-ordinated effort disturb me and thus I believe religious and related pressure groups which operate in this way are acting antidemocratically and should play no part in politics. I also have problems with those who preach racist and related ideologies which seem almost indistinguishable from nationalism, patriotism and religious conviction.]

My art teacher, Mr Higginson, would give me special tuition at lunch times or after school was over. My father made me finish all my homework and I had to stay up until it was not only complete but passed his inspection - midnight if necessary. As time progressed, for reasons which I am not sure I understand, I gravitated towards chemistry, physics and maths (in that order) and these became my specialist subjects in the 6th form. I was keen on sport, and in school I concentrated on gymnastics whilst outside school I played as much tennis as I could. I patterned my backhand (and my haircut) on that of Dick Savitt and my service on that of Neil Fraser. At one time I remember wanting to be Wimbledon champion but decided that this goal was going to be a bit hard to achieve as I seemed to be having too much difficulty winning.

I started to develop an unhealthy interest in chemistry during enjoyable lessons with Dr. Wilf Jary who fascinated me most with his ability, when using a gas blowpipe to melt lead, to blow continuously without apparently stopping to breath in. I, like almost all chemists I know, was also attracted by the smells and bangs that endowed chemistry with that slight but charismatic element of danger which is now banned from the classroom. I agree with those of us who feel that 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 education is not redressed, I doubt that we shall survive the 21st century. I became ever more fascinated by chemistry - particularly organic chemistry - and was encouraged by the sixth form chemistry teacher (Harry Heaney, now Professor at Loughborough) to go to. Sheffield University because he reckoned it had, at the time, the best chemistry department in the UK (and perhaps anywhere) - a friendly interview with the amazing Tommy Stephens (compared with a most forbidding experience at Nottingham) settled it.

I was born during the war so I just escaped military service. As all the normal places at Oxbridge were already assigned for the next two years to reemerging national servicemen, I needed to achieve scholarship level to get to Cambridge. This turned out to be a bit difficult as I had been assigned a college with an examination syllabus orthogonal to the one that I had studied. Ian McKellen, the actor, who was in the same year at school, only seems to have needed to remember his lines from his part as Henry V in the school play!

The first day that I arrived in Sheffield, I walked past a building which had a nameplate saying it was the Department of Architecture and was bemused - did people do that at University? I had somehow missed this possibility because general careers advice was non-existent at that time. With hindsight I am sure that with the advice available today I would have done something like architecture which would have conflated my art and technology interests. At Sheffield I did as much as I could. Initially I lived with a family in Hillsborough, near to the Sheffield Wednesday football ground and occasionally watched them - very occasionally as I am a Bolton Wanderers supporter. I played as much tennis as I could which helped to get me a room in a hall of residence (Crewe Hall). I played for the university tennis team and we got to the UAU (Universities Athletics Union) final twice - the team would probably have been champions without me - which they were in 1964. I wanted to continue with some form of art, which was really my passion, and became art editor of "Arrows" (the student magazine which we published each term), specialising in designing the magazine's covers and the screenprinted advertising posters. Whilst a research student I won a Sunday Times bookjacket design competition - the first important (national) prize I was to get for a very long time. Later my cover design for the departmental teaching and research brochure "Chemistry at Sussex" was featured in "Modern Publicity" (an international annual of the best in professional graphic design) - I consider this to be one of my best publications.

In the 1960s almost everybody could play the guitar well enough to play and sing two or three songs at a party so I had a go at that too and learned just enough chords (about half-a-dozen) to play some simple songs at local student folk clubs. I also decided that I should do some administration in the Students' Union and from secretary of the tennis team I somehow ended up as President of the Athletics Council. During my last year at University (1963-64) I spent some 2-3 hours of each day attending to administration in the sports office in the Union. That year's involvement in embryonic politics was enough to last a lifetime. I managed to do enough chemistry in between the tennis, some snooker and football, designing covers and posters for "Arrows", painting murals as backdrops for balls and trying to play the guitar, to get a first class honours BSc degree (1958-61) and a PhD (1961-64) as well as some job offers. I also got married.

I had been keen on organic chemistry when I arrived at Sussex (at the behest of Harry Heaney I had bought Fieser and Fieser's Organic Chemistry and read much of it while at school - it was a good read), but as the university course progressed I started to get interested in quantum mechanics and when I was introduced to spectroscopy (by Richard Dixon, who was to become Professor at Bristol) I was hooked. It was fascinating to see spectroscopic band patterns which showed that molecules could count. I had a problem as I really liked organic chemistry (I guess I really liked drawing hexagons) but in the end I decided to do a PhD in the Spectroscopy of Free Radicals produced by Flash Photolysis - with Richard Dixon. George Porter was Professor of Physical Chemistry at that time so there was a lot of flashing going on at Sheffield.

In 1964 I had several job offers but Marg(aret) and I decided that we wanted to live abroad for a while and Richard Dixon had inveigled an attractive offer of a postdoctoral position for me from Don Ramsay at the National Research Council in Ottawa. In 1964 Marg and I left Liverpool, on the Empress of Canada, for Montreal and then went on to Ottawa by train. I arrived at the famous No. 100, Sussex Drive, NRC, Ottawa, where Gerhard Herzberg (GH) had created the mecca of spectroscopy with his colleagues Alec Douglas, Cec Costain, Don Ramsay, Boris Stoicheff and others. At the time NRC was the only national research facility worldwide that was recognised as a genuine success. I suspect that this was because the legendary Steacie had left researchers to do the science they wanted; now unfortunately - as almost everywhere else - administrators decide what should be done. I remember easily making friends with all the other postdocs who congregated each morning and afternoon in the historical room 1057 - the spectroscopy tea/coffee area. The atmosphere was, in retrospect, quite exhilarating and many there, including: Reg Colin, Cec Costain, Fokke Creutzberg, Alec Douglas, Werner Goetz, Jon Hougen, Takeshi Oka and Jim Watson and their families became our lifelong close friends. As I look back I realise that Cec Costain, Jon Hougen, Takeshi Oka and Jim Watson were to exert enormous direct and indirect influence on my scientific development. I gradually learned to recognise who was good at what and what (if anything) I was good at. To paraphrase Clint Eastwood "A (scientist's) gotta know his limitations"- and in this somewhat daunting company I learned mine. Although I knew that my level of knowledge and understanding was limited when I arrived, I was never made to feel inferior. This encouraging atmosphere was, in my opinion, the most important quality of the laboratory and permeated down directly from GH, Alec and Cec - it was a fantastic, free environment. The philosophy seemed to be to make state-of-the-art equipment available and let budding young scientists loose to do almost whatever they wanted. Present research funding policies appear to me to be opposed to this type of intellectual environment. I have severe doubts about policies (in the UK and elsewhere) which concentrate on "relevance" and fund only those with foresight when it is obvious that many (including me) haven't got much. There are as many ways to do science as there are scientists and thus when funds are scarce good scientists have to be supported even if they do not know where their studies are leading. Though it seems obvious (at least to me) that unexpected discoveries must be intrinsically more important than predictable (applied) advances it is now more difficult than ever before to obtain support for more non-strategic research.

In 1965 after a further year of flash photolysis/spectroscopy in Don Ramsay's laboratory, where I discovered a singlet-singlet electronic transition of the NCN radical and worked on pyridine which turned out to have a nonplanar excited state (still to be fully published!), I transferred to Cec Costain's laboratory because I had developed a fascination for microwave spectroscopy. There I worked on the rotational spectrum of NCN3. Sometimes Takeshi Oka would be on the next spectrometer-working next to someone with such an exceptional blend of theoretical and experimental expertise did not help to alleviate the occasional sense of inadequacy. I really learned quantum mechanics (as did we all) from an intensive course that Jon Hougen gave at Carleton University. Whenever I was in difficulty theoretically (which was most of the time) Jim Watson helped me out - when he was not busy helping everyone else out. Gradually I realised that many in the field were stronger at physics than chemistry and in retrospect I subconsciously recognised that there might be a niche for me in spectrocopy research if I could exploit my relatively strong chemistry backgound.

In 1966, after two years at NRC, John Murrell (who had taught me quantum chemistry at Sheffield) offered me a postdoctoral position at Sussex. We were quite keen to live in the US, however, and I managed to get a postdoctoral position at Bell Labs (Murray Hill) with Yoh Han Pao (later Professor at Case Western) to carry out studies of liquid phase interactions by laser Raman spectroscopy. David Santry (now Professor at McMaster) was also working with Yoh Han at that time and each evening Dave and I carried out CNDO theoretical calculations on the electronic transitions of small molecules and radicals. I learned programming (Fortran) from Dave who threw me in at the deep end by showing me how to modify and correct the programs and then left me to see if I could do it myself.

During the year I received another letter from John Murrell to say that the position that had been available at Sussex the previous year was still available but would not be so for much longer. Thus Marg, Stephen (who had been born in Ottawa) and I came back to the UK- my annual salary dropped from $14000 to 1400 pounds, ouch! Marg had to find part-time employment as soon as possible although pregnant with our second son, David (we were poorer - but we were happier .... ! ! ! ). I was just about to start writing off for some positions back in the US and had just located the address of Buckminster Fuller's research group (I was interested in the way that predesigned urban sub-structures might be welded into an efficient large urban complex) when John Murrell offered me a permanent lectureship at Sussex which I accepted.

I remember thinking I would give myself five years to make a go of research and teaching and if it was not working out I would re-train to do graphic design (my first love) or go into scientific educational TV (I had had an interview with the BBC before we went to Canada). I started to build up a microwave laboratory to probe unstable molecules and Michael Lappert encouraged me to use his photoelectron spectrometer to carry out work independently.

By 1970 I had carried out research in the electronic spectroscopy of gas phase free radicals and rotational microwave spectrocopy, I had built He-Ne and argon ion lasers to study intermolecular interactions in liquids, carried out theoretical calculations and learned to write programs. At Sussex I carried on liquid phase Raman studies, rebuilt a flash photolysis machine and built a microwave spectrometer and started to do photoelectron spectroscopy. I had applied for a Hewlett Packard microwave spectrometer and SERC, in its infinite wisdom, decided to place the equipment at Reading (where my co-applicant, a theoretician (!), worked) so requiring me and my group (the experimentalists) to travel each month to Reading to make our measurements! However by 1974, after three further attempts to get my own spectrometer (with help in consolidating my proposal from David Whiffen), the SERC finally gave in and I got one of my own at Sussex. The first molecule we studied was the carbon chain species HC5N - to which the start of my role in the discovery of C60 can be traced directly.

The discovery of C60 in 1985 caused me to shelve my dream of setting up a studio specialising in scientific graphic design (I had been doing graphics semiprofessionally for years and it was clear that the computer was starting to develop real potential as an artistically creative device). That was the downside of our discovery. I decided to probe the consequences of the C60 concept. In 1990 when the material was finally extracted by Krätschmer, Lamb, Fostiropoulos and Huffman, I and my colleagues Roger Taylor and David Walton, decided to exploit the synthetic chemistry and materials science implications. I began to realise that I might never furfill my graphics aspirations. In 1991 I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Royal Society Research Professorship which enables me to concentrate on research by allowing me to do essentially no teaching. However I like teaching so I continue to do some. I have discovered that since I stopped teaching 1st and 2nd-year students, home-grown graduate students are few and far between.

In 1995, together with Patrick Reams a BBC producer, I inaugurated the Vega Science Trust to create science films of sufficiently high quality for network television broadcast (BBC2 and BBC Prime). Our films not only reflect the excitement of scientific discovery but also the intrinsic concepts and principles without which fundamental understanding is impossible. The Trust also seeks to preserve our scientific cultural heritage by recording scientists who have not only made outstanding contributions but also are outstanding communicators. The trust, whose activitities are coordinated by Gill Watson, has now made some 20 films of Royal Institution (London) Discourses archival programmes and interviews.

I have been asked many questions about our Nobel Prize and have many conflicting thoughts about it. I have particular regrets about the fact that the contributions of our student co-workers Jim Heath, and Sean O'Brien as well as Yuan Liu receive such disparate recognition relative to that accorded to ours (e.g. Bob, Rick and me). I also have regrets with regard to the general recognition accorded to the amazing breakthrough that Wolfgang Krätschmer and Don Huffman made with their students Kostas Fostiropoulos and Lowell Lamb in extracting C60 using the carbon arc technique and which did so much to ignite the explosive growth of Fullerene Science. I have heard some scientists say that young scientists need prizes such as the Nobel Prize as an incentive. Maybe some do, but I don't. I never dreamed of winning the Nobel Prize - indeed I was very happy with my scientific work prior to the discovery of C60 in 1985. The creation of the first molecules with carbon/phosphorus double bonds and the discovery of the carbon chains in space seemed (to me) like nice contributions and even if I did not do anything else as significant I would have felt quite successful as a scientist. A youngster recently asked what advice I would give to a child who wanted to be where I am now. One thing I would not advise is to do science with the aim of winning any prizes let alone the Nobel Prize that seems like a recipe for eventual disillusionment for a lot of people. [Over the years I have given many lectures for public understanding of science and some of my greatest satisfaction has come in conversations with school children, teachers, lay people, retired research workers who have often exhibited a fascination for science as a cultural activity and a deep and understanding of the way nature works.] I believe competition is to be avoided as much as possible. In fact this view applies to any interest - I thus have a problem with sport which is inherently competitive. My advice is to do something which interests you or which you enjoy (though I am not sure about the definition of enjoyment) and do it to the absolute best of your ability. If it interests you, however mundane it might seem on the surface, still explore it because something unexpected often turns up just when you least expect it. With this recipe, whatever your limitations, you will almost certainly still do better than anyone else. Having chosen something worth doing, never give up and try not to let anyone down.


From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1996, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1997

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/Nobel Lectures. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.


Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1996
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