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Above: Buckminsterfullerene animation


The story of the identification, modelling and naming of Buckminsterfullerine in 1985 already has the quality of legend - like the famous account of the origin of the benzene ring in August Kekule’s dream of a snake biting its tail.

Sir Harry Kroto tells how his work at Rice University with the team that included Robert Curl and Richard Smalley led to the identification of the 60-atom cluster of carbon which exhibited a stability at odds with any graphite-like or diamond-like configuration. An architecture was required that closed off the apparently dangling valencies in any of the immediately plausible arrangements.  It was difficult to see how a closed polygon of hexagons, like a ball of graphite, could work.

The key moment came with the introduction of pentagonal faces (prefigured by Eiji Osawa in 1970), which can effect closure on extended orbs of hexagons of varied dimensions. The suggestion welled up from Kroto’s memory of the geodesic dome designed by the architect and visionary inventor, Buckminster Fuller, for the American pavilion at Expo67 in Montreal. Kroto also recalled making Fuller-style cardboard skymap for his children in the form of a ‘stardome’. The ‘stardome’ comprised a truncated icosahedron of 20 hexagonal and 12 pentagonal faces, with 60 vertices. It was on this hunch that  pentagons were involved that Smalley worked into the night to construct  by hand the first paper model of the hypothetical structure.

A crucial component that Kroto brought to the Buckyball team was his natural instinct as a designer. Indeed, he had long hankered after a career in graphic design, and, before the consuming success of C60, planned to found a studio for scientific graphics. He is one of those scientists, like Leonardo and Kepler, naturally drawn to the tangible beauty of complex symmetries in works of nature and art.

Compared to the initial announcement of C60 and technical outline of ‘our somewhat speculative structure’, which occupied less than 1 1/2 columns of dryly laconic prose in Nature, the public broadcasting of the victory of the Buckyball team was marked by a hatfull of metaphorical goals. Extolling the ‘cosmic and microcosmic charisma of the soccerball’, Kroto’s 1996 Nobel prize address expressed delight with its ascent to stardom: “this elegant molecule... has fascinated scientists, delighted lay people, and has infected children with a new enthusiasm for science and in particular it has given chemistry a new lease of life.”

At present it looks as if the Buckyball is to become the kind of modern icon for Chemistry that  DNA has become for molecular biology. It also helps, of course, if one or more the discoverers exhibits a public charisma to match that of the molecule.

Text taken from ‘Kroto and Charisma’ by Martin Kemp

Buckminsterfullerene animation by Nick Mee from the ‘Polytopia I’ CD-ROM Published by Virtual Image