In Memoriam: Harry Kroto, 1939–2016

Gary Whittenberger, Richard Hull

Harry Kroto, the world-renowned chemist, science educator, and humanist, died near London, England, on April 30, 2016, in the company of his wife, Margaret, and their two sons. He died of complications stemming from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which has come to be known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Kroto was a Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism and the honorary president of the Tallahassee chapter of the Center for Inquiry. He will be greatly missed by his family, friends, and colleagues.

“Harry

Harold Walter Krotoshiner was born on October 7, 1939, in a little town called Wisbech in Cambridge­shire, England. The family name was later shortened from “Krotoshiner” to “Kroto.” As a boy, Kroto worked in his father’s balloon factory and became enthused with gymnastics, tennis, and science. To satisfy a budding interest in chemistry, he entered Sheffield University, thought to be the best school at which to study chemistry in the United Kingdom (UK). Here, Kroto played on the tennis team and became art editor of the student magazine. He received several awards for his graphic designs and played tennis well, although not up to his own expectations. He once said, “At one time I remember wanting to be Wimbledon champion, but decided this goal was going to be a bit hard as I seemed to be having too much difficulty winning.” Notably, during this period he performed in amateur productions with an adolescent Ian McKellen. At Sheffield, Kroto earned his bachelor of science degree and for his doctorate, he studied the spectroscopy of free radicals produced by flash photolysis. During this time, he also married Margaret, with whom he remained for over fifty years, until his death.

After completing his graduate studies, Kroto took a two-year postdoctoral position at the National Research Council in Ottawa, Canada, where he worked in a highly stimulating environment with other scientists of great intelligence and reputation and “learned who he was.” Harry and Margaret had their first son, Stephen, during this time. In 1966, Kroto went on to a second postdoctoral position at Bell Labs at Murray Hill, New Jersey, where he continued his spectroscopic work and learned the Fortran computer programming language. Then the family returned to the United Kingdom, where he took a professorship at Sussex University. He taught and conducted research; Margaret worked part time; and the couple had their second son, David. After many years of experimental study, theoretical calculations, development of new spectroscopic techniques, and collaboration with colleagues, Kroto discovered the C60 molecule in 1985.

In 1995, working with a BBC producer, Kroto inaugurated the Vega Science Trust to create science films for television broadcasting. His own annus mirabilis was 1996, when he was recognized at a high level for his scientific work. Not only was he knighted, but he received the Nobel Prize alongside two other colleagues—Robert F. Curl Jr. and Richard Smalley, both members of the Chemistry Department at Rice University—for the discovery of C60, otherwise known as “Buckminsterfullerene.” Smalley died in October 2005. Curl, from his home in Houston, said of Kroto:

Harry came to Rice for a visit and we discussed some common interests. After some time this led to a second visit, which had the aim of demonstrating that cyanoacetylenes could be produced in the debris that can accumulate around a red giant star. Completely unexpectedly, our data showed strong evidence that a molecule of a completely different sort with the chemical formula C60 was being produced in our experiments, and that this molecule is chemically relatively unreactive. Together we published a letter about this C60 discovery in Nature that has been cited almost ten thousand times in later scientific publications. This discovery led to a host of other work by Harry and the Rice group both jointly and separately and by many other scientists.

Nobel prize winners tend to end up doing one of three things: they either try for the prize again, or they continue to work in the area of their previous interests without expecting lightning to strike again, or they get involved in an entirely new set of interests. Harry was more of the third sort, dedicated to enhancing and enlivening public interest in science, and to assisting science teachers in making their subject engaging for their students, although he remained productive in research making a number of highly significant contributions.

Curl noted that Kroto was an atheist, saying, “In the spectrum—devout, evangelical, or militant—of atheist commitment, he seemed to me to best fit into the category ‘evangelical,’ though I note that he declared himself ‘devout.’ His behavior throughout his life gave the lie to those who declaim that people require a god in order to behave ethically, morally and altruistically.”

 

In 2004, Kroto retired from his position at Sussex and became a professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, where he continued until May 2015. At FSU, Harry developed the GEOSET project, which aimed to present high-quality science-education lectures via the Internet. An important part of this project was the contribution of student lectures. Since receiving the Nobel Prize, and especially during his last decade, Kroto gave lectures all over the world—for example, in Japan, China, the United Kingdom, Europe, and elsewhere—on various topics including chemistry, astronomy, spectroscopy, philosophy and history of science, skepticism, human rights, and humanism. Also, he and Margaret conducted buckyball workshops for children throughout the world.

For Kroto, science and humanism were inextricably connected. He once said, “Scientists have a responsibility, or at least I feel I have a responsibility, to ensure that what I do is for the benefit of the human race. It is important that we try to point out facts to help those in power to make decisions. Unfortunately, this is not often the case. Although knowledge cannot guarantee good decisions, common sense suggests that wisdom is an unlikely consequence of ignorance.”

Harry Kroto was an unabashed secular humanist. He opined, “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.”

At FSU, Kroto’s curiosity was infectious, and he mentored many students. “My advice is to do something which interests you or which you enjoy (although I am not sure of the definition of enjoyment) and do it to the absolute best of your ability. If it interests you, no matter how mundane it might seem on the surface, still explore it because something unexpected often turns up when you least expect it.”

The Center for Inquiry–Tallahassee was founded in October 2005, and Kroto became connected with the group shortly thereafter. His first involvement consisted of participation in two annual Darwin Days. He was later made the honorary president of the chapter. He gave lectures, presented workshops for children, made generous monetary contributions, participated in online forums, and always encouraged us to advance the Enlightenment. When Kroto attended chapter potluck dinners, he always drew a crowd and engaged in lively discussions.

Late in April 2015, Kroto informed the chapter about his illness and his impending move from Tallahassee back to the UK. On May 2, 2015, a farewell dinner was held in honor of the Krotos at a local restaurant. Thirty-seven CFI members and friends of Harry attended the event. At that time, his gait and speech showed some impairment due to his illness, but he spoke fondly of his time in Tallahassee and with CFI.

The mission of the Center for Inquiry is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. No one else comes to mind who has exemplified these values more than Harry Kroto. He was a true son of the Enlightenment. Sir Harry, we will miss you.

Gary Whittenberger

Gary J. Whittenberger, PhD, is a retired psychologist, a longtime member of the Center for Inquiry, codirector of the Tallahassee Freethinkers’ Forum, and author of the book God Wants You to Be an Atheist.

Richard Hull

Richard T. Hull is a professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. This essay is adapted from a paper presented at the Center for Inquiry 2006 World Congress.


Remembering an exceptional chemist, humanist, and educator.

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