I have a postcard glued onto my notebook with a quote from Maria Mitchell:
“We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic but is somewhat beauty and poetry.”
I like to think that Harry Kroto would have approved. He was driven by imagination and creativity, and spent his life inspiring these qualities in others.
I knew Harry was very ill but the news of his death still came as a shock last weekend. I was at a science show, witnessing a dynamic science communicator entertain a theatre full of families. Harry’s brilliance at engaging young people and drawing creative thinking from them was the reason I asked him to speak at the first conference of the Young Scientists Journal.
I was first introduced to Harry Kroto in 2012. He had discovered Young Scientists Journal (a science journal written, edited and produced by students aged 12 to 20) and was keen for us to collaborate with his GEOSET project (Global Educational Outreach for Science, Engineering & Technology). Both ventures aim to develop young peoples’ communication skills: GEOSET through presenting films about science, Young Scientists Journal through writing. We cut a deal: we’d commit to getting some student presentations published on GEOSET and he’d agree to join the Journal’s International Advisory Board (now “Ambassadors”) and speak at our first ever conference.
He and Margaret came over to King’s, Canterbury where the conference was to take place and I showed him round the school, including the chemistry laboratories. It was the middle of the summer holidays and the place was deserted, but he was quietly chuffed (and I was secretly jubilant) to find a model buckyball displayed on every windowsill! An old boy of Bolton School, he drew comparisons between these two great schools. Not swayed by grandeur (he told me he’d turned down the position of Master of an Oxbridge college) he seemed impressed by the school’s 1400 year history and was glad that the King’s (and Bolton) students were contributing to GEOSET’s cache of science learning videos. In fact, he and Margaret established a competition for high school students (won in its first year by a King’s student) to encourage them to make short science films, convinced that young people’s creativity can contribute much to global science.
Back at our house for supper, he demonstrated the incredible power of his hyperlinked powerpoint presentations, reflecting the rapid parallel workings of his own brain. Speaking about carbon-60, he could fire off at a tangent, click through, for example, to a whole different presentation about album cover artwork, head off into his early film project Vega, then head back to his Nobel prize-winning discovery again. Not surprising that such a multi-faceted brain could have worked out the geodesic structure of Buckminsterfullerene! The conversation ranged from STEM education to the Stones, from Meccano to Tomkinson’s Schooldays (Palin and Jones). It’s hard to acknowledge that this fizzing ball of creativity is no longer with us.
The first time I heard Harry Kroto speak was at the Royal Institution in about 1986 or 7. It was a sixth form chemistry conference and he was describing the work leading up to the discovery of carbon-60 which must, I suppose, have been very recent; the Nobel prize came nearly ten years later. It was his informal yet totally engaging tone, his love of patterns and the excitement of scientific discovery he conveyed which stayed with me. I was sad when a few years later he left the chemistry department at Sussex University for Florida State University, a prominently-reported brain-drain.
So in March 2014 students from over 20 schools, including as far away as Chennai, India, gathered at the King’s School for the first conference of the Young Scientists Journal. Harry fitted right in, apparently still a teenager in so many ways! He called his talk “The Educational Revolution and the Goo-You-Wiki World”. He helped the audience to appreciate the beauty, symmetry and elegance of mathematics and he spoke about the ways in which the internet has helped spread and democratise science. He led two workshops for smaller groups and joined our panel discussion. The students were swept along with his with his passion for science and roguish humour. After presenting the student winners of the poster presentations he joined us for the speakers’ dinner, before a well-deserved snooze in the car we provided home to Lewes!
We collaborated further on GEOSET and had started to discuss a TV science project with various organisations in the UK when he became ill. In the short time I was lucky enough to know him I became infected with his limitless ambition and passion for science communication. I must credit him with influencing my move towards science outreach and communication and the expansion of the journal.
I was proud to support Harry’s Geoset project and the Young Scientists were deeply honoured to count him amongst our Ambassadors. We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife and champion Margaret and to his GEOSET collaborators Steve and Colin. The world has lost a disruptive genius and a lovely man.