Harry Kroto

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Harry Kroto : biography

7 October 1939 –

Sir Harold (Harry) Walter Kroto, FRS (born Harold Walter Krotoschiner; 7 October 1939), is the English chemist who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Robert Curl and Richard Smalley. Kroto is the Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry at the Florida State University, which he joined in 2004. Prior to that, he spent a large part of his career at the University of Sussex, where he now holds an emeritus professorship.

Early years

Kroto was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, England, to Edith and Heinz Krotoschiner,. Notablebiographies.com. Retrieved on 2011-12-25. with his name being of Silesian origin. His father’s family came from Bojanowo, Poland, and his mother’s from Berlin, Germany. Both his parents were born in Berlin but came to Great Britain in the 1930s as refugees from the Nazis because his father was Jewish. He was raised in Bolton, Lancashire, England, and attended Bolton School, where he was a contemporary of the highly acclaimed actor Ian McKellen. In 1955, the family name was shortened to Kroto.

As a child, he became fascinated by a Meccano set. Kroto credits Meccano — 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, he has stated that religion never made any sense to him. He is a distinguished supporter of the British Humanist Association. In 2003 he was one of 21 Nobel Laureates who signed the Humanist Manifesto.

Personal life

In 1963, he married Margaret Henrietta Hunter, also a student at the University. Kroto calls himself a devout atheist. On 15 September 2010, Kroto, along with 54 other public figures, signed an open letter published in The Guardian, stating their opposition to Pope Benedict XVI’s state visit to the UK.


Early work

In 1961 he obtained a first class BSc honours degree in chemistry at the University of Sheffield, followed in 1964 by a PhD at the same institution. His doctoral research involved high-resolution electronic spectra of free radicals produced by flash photolysis (breaking of chemical bonds by light).

Among other things such as making the first phosphaalkenes (compounds with carbon phosphorus double bonds), his doctoral studies included some 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 postdoctoral research at the National Research Council in Canada and Bell Laboratories in the USA he began teaching and research at the University of Sussex in England in 1967. He became a full professor in 1975, and a Royal Society Research Professor from 1991 – 2007.

Subsequent work

In the 1980s he launched a research programme at Sussex to look for carbon chains in the interstellar medium. Earlier studies had detected the molecule cyanoacetylene, H-C≡C-C≡N. Kroto’s group searched for spectral evidence of longer similar molecules such as cyanobutadiyne, H-C≡C-C≡C-C≡N and cyanohexatriyne, H-C≡C-C≡C-C≡C-C≡N, and found them from 1975–1979.

Trying to explain them led to the discovery of the C60 molecule. (See buckminsterfullerene.) He heard of laser spectroscopy work being done by Richard Smalley and Robert Curl at Rice University in Texas. He suggested that they should use the Rice apparatus to simulate the carbon chemistry that occurs in the atmosphere of a carbon star.

The experiment carried out in September 1985 not only proved that carbon stars could produce the chains but revealed the existence of the C60 species. The three scientists carried out the work with graduate students Jim Heath (now a full Professor at Caltech), Sean O’Brien (now at Texas Instruments), and Yuan Liu (now at Oak Ridge National Laboratory). The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was shared by Curl, Kroto and Smalley in 1996.