Kroto held many positions in academia throughout his life, ending his career as the Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry at Florida State University, which he joined in 2004. Prior to this, he spent approximately 40 years at the University of Sussex.
Kroto promoted science education and was a critic of religious faith.
As a child, he became fascinated by a Meccano set. Kroto credited Meccano, as well as his aiding his father in the latter's balloon factory after World War II – amongst other things – with developing skills useful in scientific research. He developed an interest in chemistry, physics, and mathematics in secondary school, and because his sixth form chemistry teacher (Harry Heaney – who subsequently became a university professor) felt that the University of Sheffield had the best chemistry department in the United Kingdom, he went to Sheffield.
Although raised Jewish, Harry Kroto stated that religion never made any sense to him. He was a humanist who claimed to have three religions: Amnesty Internationalism, atheism, and humour. He was a distinguished supporter of the British Humanist Association. In 2003 he was one of 22 Nobel Laureates who signed the Humanist Manifesto.
Kroto was educated at Bolton School and went to the University of Sheffield in 1958, where he obtained a first-class honours BSc degree in Chemistry (1961) and a PhD in Molecular Spectroscopy (1964). During his time at Sheffield he also was the art editor of Arrows – the University student magazine, played tennis for the University team (reaching the UAU finals twice) and was President of the Student Athletics Council (1963–64). Among other things such as making the first phosphaalkenes (compounds with carbon phosphorus double bonds), his doctoral studies included unpublished research on carbon suboxide, O=C=C=C=O, and this led to a general interest in molecules containing chains of carbon atoms with numerous multiple bonds. He started his work with an interest in organic chemistry, but when he learned about spectroscopy it inclined him towards quantum chemistry; he later developed an interest in astrochemistry.
After obtaining his PhD, Kroto spent two-years in a postdoctoral position at the National Research Council in Ottawa, Canada carrying out further work in molecular spectroscopy, and also spent the subsequent year at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey (1966–1967) carrying out Raman studies of liquid phase interactions and worked on quantum chemistry.
Research at the University of Sussex
In 1967, Kroto began teaching and research at the University of Sussex in England. During his time at Sussex from 1967 to 1985, he carried out research mainly focused on the spectroscopic studies of new and novel unstable and semi-stable species. This work resulted in the birth of the various fields of new chemistry involving carbon multiply bonded to second and third row elements e.g. S, Se and P. A particularly important breakthrough (with Sussex colleague John Nixon) was the creation of several new phosphorus species detected by microwave spectroscopy. This work resulted in the birth of the field(s) of phosphaalkene and phosphaalkyne chemistry. These species contain carbon double and triple bonded to phosphorus (C=P and C≡P) such as cyanophosphaethyne.
In 1975, he became a full professor of Chemistry. This coincided with laboratory microwave measurements with Sussex colleague David Walton on long linear carbon chain molecules, leading to radio astronomy observations with Canadian astronomers revealing the surprising fact that these unusual carbonaceous species existed in relatively large abundances in interstellar space as well as the outer atmospheres of certain stars – the carbon-rich red giants.
Discovery of buckminsterfullerene
In 1985, on the basis of the Sussex studies and the stellar discoveries, laboratory experiments (with co-workers James R. Heath, Sean C. O'Brien, Yuan Liu, Robert Curl and Richard Smalley at Rice University) which simulated the chemical reactions in the atmospheres of the red giant stars demonstrated that stable C60 molecules could form spontaneously from a condensing carbon vapour. The co-investigators directed lasers at graphite and examined the results. The C60 molecule is a molecule with the same symmetry pattern as a football, consisting of 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons of carbon atoms. Kroto named the molecule buckminsterfullerene, after Buckminster Fuller who had conceived of the geodesic domes, as the dome concept had provided a clue to the likely structure of the new species.
In 1985, the C60 discovery caused Kroto to shift the focus of his research from spectroscopy in order to probe the consequences of the C60 structural concept (and prove it correct) and to exploit the implications for chemistry and material science.
This research is significant for the discovery of a new allotrope of carbon known as a fullerene. Other allotropes of carbon include graphite, diamond and graphene. Harry Kroto's 1985 paper entitled "C60: Buckminsterfullerine", published with colleagues J. R. Heath, S. C. O'Brien, R. F. Curl, and R. E. Smalley, was honored by a Citation for Chemical Breakthrough Award from the Division of History of Chemistry of the American Chemical Society, presented to Rice University in 2015. The discovery of fullerenes was recognized in 2010 by the designation of a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society at the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
Research at Florida State University
In 2004, Kroto left the University of Sussex to take up a new position as Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry at Florida State University. At FSU he carried out fundamental research on: Carbon vapour with Professor Alan Marshall; Open framework condensed phase systems with strategically important electrical and magnetic behaviour with Professors Naresh Dalal (FSU) and Tony Cheetham (Cambridge); and the mechanism of formation and properties of nano-structured systems. In addition, he participated in research initiatives at FSU that probed the astrochemistry of fullerenes, metallofullerenes, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in stellar/circumstellar space, as well as their relevance to stardust.
Educational outreach and public service
In 1995, he jointly set up the Vega Science Trust, a UK educational charity that created high quality science films including lectures and interviews with Nobel Laureates, discussion programmes, careers and teaching resources for TV and Internet Broadcast. Vega produced over 280 programmes, that streamed for free from the Vega website which acted as a TV science channel. The trust closed in 2012.
In 2009, Kroto spearheaded the development of a second science education initiative, Geoset. Short for the Global Educational Outreach for Science, Engineering and Technology, GEOSET is an ever-growing online cache of recorded teaching modules that are freely downloadable to educators and the public. The program aims to increase knowledge of the sciences by creating a global repository of educational videos and presentations from leading universities and institutions.
In 2003, prior to the Blair/Bush invasion of Iraq on the pretext that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Kroto initiated and organised the publication of a letter to be signed by a dozen UK Nobel Laureates and published in The Times. It was composed by his friend the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate the late Sir Joseph Rotblat and published in The Times on 15 February 2003.
In October 2010 Kroto participated in the USA Science and Engineering Festival's Lunch with a Laureate program where middle and high school students had the opportunity to engage in an informal conversation with a Nobel Prize–winning scientist.
In 2014, Kroto spoke at the Starmus Festival in the Canary Islands, delivering a lecture about his life in science, chemistry, and design.
In 1963, he married Margaret Henrietta Hunter, also a student of the University of Sheffield at the time. The couple had two sons: Stephen and David. Throughout his entire life, Kroto was a lover of film, theatre, art, and music and published his own artwork.
Kroto praised the increase of organized online information as an "Educational Revolution" and named it as the "GooYouWiki" world referring to Google, YouTube and Wikipedia.
One of Kroto's favourite quotes was: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings." said by Albert Einstein,
The discovery of buckminsterfullerene caused Kroto to postpone his dream of setting up an art and graphic design studio – he had been doing graphics semi-professionally for years. However, Kroto's graphic design work resulted in numerous posters, letterheads, logos, book/journal covers, medal design, etc. He produced artwork after receiving graphic awards in the Sunday Times Book Jacket Design competition (1964) and the Moet Hennesy/Louis Vuitton Science pour l'Art Prize (1994). Other notable graphical works include the design of the Nobel UK Stamp for Chemistry (2001) and features at the Royal Academy (London) Summer Exhibition (2004).
Richard Dawkins wrote a memorial for chemist Kroto where he mentioned Kroto's "passionate hatred of religion."The Wall Street Journal described him as "(spending much of his later life) jetting around the world to extol scientific education in a world he saw as blinded by religion." Slate's Zack Kopplin related a story about how Kroto gave him advice and support to fight Louisiana's creationism law, a law that allows public school science teachers to attack evolution and how Kroto defended the scientific findings of global warming. In an obituary published in the journal Nature, Robert Curl and James R. Heath described Kroto as having an "impish sense of humour similar to that of the British comedy group Monty Python".
Honours and awards
Kroto won numerous awards, individually and with others:
^Simmons, Nigel P. C.; Nixon, John F.; Kroto, Harold W.; Hopkinson, Michael J. (1976). "The detection of unstable molecules by microwave spectroscopy: phospha-alkenes". Journal of the Chemical Society, Chemical Communications. 0 (13): 513–515. doi:10.1039/C39760000513.
^Avery, L. W.; Broten, N. W.; MacLeod, J. M.; Oka, T.; Kroto, H. W. (1976). "Detection of the Heavy Interstellar Molecule Cyanodiacetylene". The Astrophysical Journal. 205: L173. Bibcode:1976ApJ...205L.173A. doi:10.1086/182117.
^Jain, P; Ramachandran, V; Clark, RJ; Zhou, HD; Toby, BH; Dalal, NS; Kroto, HW; Cheetham, AK (2009). "Multiferroic Behavior Associated with an Order−Disorder Hydrogen Bonding Transition in Metal−Organic Frameworks (MOFs) with the Perovskite ABX3 Architecture". Journal of the American Chemical Society. 131 (38): 13625–13627. doi:10.1021/ja904156s. PMID19725496.