Graphic artist, athlete, knight and Nobel Prize winning chemist sir Harry Kroto attracted an audience of 350 people in the MacEwan Hall Ballroom Wed., Nov. 22 as the lecturer for Alberta Ingenuity’s second annual road show.
Despite his many titles, Kroto is best known for his discovery of buckminsterfullerene, C60, for which he shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry with colleagues Robert Curl and Richard Smalley. Fullerenes are extremely flexible forms of carbon that can form spherical and cylindrical networks and are important in nanotechnology and materials development.
“[This event is] something we put in front of Albertans, to give them someone to look up to; someone that has taken the human spirit of innovation and made it real,” said Alberta Ingenuity president and CEO Peter Hackett.
It’s easy to imagine that the room might have been less full, the laughter less punctuated, the dress more casual and the feeling of privilege in the spectators less pronounced had the talk been given by a pre-Nobelian Kroto.
“The day that the Nobel Prize was announced, I certainly became infinitely smarter than I had been the day before–obviously not,” reflected Kroto. “[When] people ask my view, or ask me questions and think my opinion might be of value, I find that when they hear my opinion and when that opinion conflicts with something they feel strongly about, it doesn’t make any difference. When something is very important it doesn’t make a scrap of difference who you are.”
Kroto is well-known as a self-professed atheist with a perspective of life grounded on evidence. Despite his Nobel Prize, not everyone takes kindly to Kroto’s opinions on religion.
“I don’t have a problem with the world as we know it,” said Kroto. “It seems to be fairly straight forward, but some people, for some reason, have to have some meaning. I don’t think there’s any meaning to me. I just happen to be alive and when I’m dead that’s it.”
“People say, ‘You destroy the mystery of life when you study science.’ I reply, ‘Are you applauding ignorance?’ That being said, there are a lot of people to whom God or whatever is really important and it doesn’t makes a scrap of difference who you are, if you’re telling them otherwise. I don’t want to upset belief. On the other hand, if those people are then interfering with me and wanting to change the laws of the country to fit in with these beliefs, then I think it’s questionable and I start to worry. This is the situation at the present time.”
Even though his opinions are subject to individuals’ scrutiny, Kroto said he still feels a strong sense of liability when he tries to get a message across.
“I do think that Nobel Prize winners– because to some extent their opinions are sought–I think they have a responsibility to society to be honest and sensible about the things that they feel are important,” he said. “That’s why I give lectures like this and try to present my perspective on society and science and issues that I think are disturbing or exciting.”
Kroto’s lecture was themed ‘Science, Society, Sustainability’ and saw Kroto work the room with his English charm, accentuate his main points with explosive sound effects, and read passages with the enthusiasm of a performer.
Kroto focused on his environmental concerns by displaying pictures of refrigerator landfills and citing his disgust with huge energy-consuming technologies and the rate at which we are depleting the energy of fossil fuels.
“We’re using in one year, fossil fuels that took about a million years to make,” said Kroto. “As you open up that tank, just think of it, ‘oh, I’m throwing in a pterodactyl, I’m putting in a dinosaur.’ Just watch them go into the tank and drive away, burning it. I think this makes us acutely aware of what has happened before, and what we have to do.”
Without dung beetles and a place to dump our garbage, Kroto was quite certain we would be literally “up to our necks in our own shit” and “even deeper.” Thus, Kroto argued, sustainability is one of the most important issues confronting the world. Naturally, as a chemist Kroto argued that we need to address sustainability through the fundamental sciences.
“We can conserve and we have technology that can buy some time, but I think we’ve still got some fundamental breakthroughs to make if we’re going to survive,” he said. “Chemistry, molecular physics, biochemistry–I think they’re the only show in town.”
One such revolution would be pollution-free water-based fuels.
“My primary core sustainability technology is splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen by sunlight,” said Kroto. “Somehow we have to take two photons and break the hydrogen-oxygen bond. We would then recombine [the hydrogen and oxygen] and get heat and without carbon dioxide and all the other things.”
Kroto did not reveal whether he was personally optimistic or pessimistic about humanity’s ability to thwart disaster, though he identified the only solution as society’s interaction with science.
Kroto concluded his lecture with a time-tested public service announcement.
“Too much of this is going to production and profit,” he said. “For those of you interested in what we should do to solve problems in the future, its got to be educating young people.”
As such, his current passion is the Vega Science Trust, a non-profit organization he co-founded in 1994 to produce science programs, capturing the thoughts and wisdom of the world’s most brilliant citizens. Besides creating television programs and videos, Vega broadcasts free of charge on its website.
Kroto made several recommendations to improve science education, including recruitment of younger scientists in hopes of countering the media’s portrayal of the typical scientist as old and unexciting.
According to Kroto, the most frustrating elements of education and research today are the pressure, competition, and granting agencies that ridiculously ask, ‘what are you going to discover’? before they providing funding.
“After all, if you’re looking for something that you think is already there, it’s not often a greater discovery than something that you didn’t know was there,” Kroto pointed out. “By and large, we know that if we put 20 per cent of our research funds into young people that are fascinated by the way things are and let them almost play, great things come of it. Advancing knowledge is beneficial for the universe.”