Sir Harold W. Kroto (1939-2016), Obituary

By George B. Kauffman

Sir Harold W. Kroto, the progressive scientist known for his efforts in science advocacy who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize [1] for his role in discovering the buckyball, a spherical carbon molecule that excited researchers around the world by promising advancing the understanding of life’s chemical building block, died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lew Gehrig’s disease) on April 30 near Lewes, England at the age of 76 [2-5]. His demise was announced by the University of Sussex, England, where he received his B.S. degree in chemistry in 1961 and his Ph.D. degree in molecular spectroscopy in 1964, and Florida State University, Tallahassee, where he had continued his research since 2004. He is survived by Margaret Kroto (née Hunter), his wife of more than half a century, of Lewes and two sons, Stephen Kroto of Lewes and David Kroto of London.

Harold Walter Krotoschiner (Harry didn’t enjoy the “Sir” epithet), was born in Wisbech, England on October 7, 1939 of Jewish parents who had migrated to England as refugees from Nazi Germany and who eventually changed the family name to Kroto. Trained in spectroscopy, a field in which the spectrum of light from an object such as a star is studied to determine that object’s chemical composition, Kroto was studying the carbon molecules in interstellar space when he began a fruitful collaboration with two American chemists at Rice University, Houston, Texas, Robert F. Curl, Jr. and Richard E. Smalley (died in 2005) [6-9].

Kroto and his collaborators discovered a carbon molecule unlike graphite or diamonds, the only previously known forms of this element. This extremely stable molecule contained 60 carbon atoms and resembled the geodesic dome or a soccer ball like the one at the Epcot Center at Walt Disney World, patented by inventor R. Buckminster Fuller. They named the molecule “buckminsterfullerene” or “fullerene,” popularly known as “buckyballs.”

In addition to the advancement in pure science, their findings promised future applications in fields as varied as superconductivity and medicine. Their study led to the discovery of cylindrical carbon structures called nanotubes, thus propelling the currently hot field of nanotechnology.

*****

George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at California State University, Fresno and Guggenheim Fellow, is recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach, and Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, and numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society, respectively

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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