At breakfast this scientist was rejected for a grant. By lunch he had won a Nobel prize

Charles Arthur Science Editor
Wednesday 09 October 1996 23:02 BST

A British chemist yesterday learnt that he had won the highest prize in his profession, the Nobel Award, hours after being turned down for government funding in the subject that won him the prize.

Sir Harold Kroto, 57, of the University of Sussex, was awarded the pounds 1m prize jointly with two American scientists for their discovery in 1985 of the structure of "buckminsterfullerene", a form of carbon composed of 60 atoms, which looks like a molecular soccer ball.

He was told of the prize at lunchtime yesterday, but at breakfast he had been told the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council had turned down his department's request for pounds 100,000 over the next three years to study the chemistry of the molecules, which could have important industrial applications.

Sir Harold was delighted with the prize but downcast at funding cuts which led to the rejection. "My feeling is that fundamental science in this country is now below its survival threshold," he said."It used to be 14 per cent of government funds, and now it's more like 5 per cent or so. The Government wants people like me to work with industry, and is trying to do it by coercion."

He originally tried to do the work that led to the discovery of the buckminsterfullerenes in Britain. "I approached three major companies here and they said it was interesting, but it was the sort of work the Government should be funding."

Instead, Sir Harold went to Canada and then to the US to perform the required work, with Robert Curl and Richard Smalley at the University of Houston. The molecules are formed when gaseous carbon condenses in an inert atmosphere. Mass spectrometry, which shows the relative weight and composition of an unknown molecule, offered the chemical formula of the new products, but nothing about their structures.

The researchers then spent a night at Houston university trying to build a model of a 60-atom molecule composed only of carbon. Each carbon atom must attach to exactly four others, each equidistant.

An early attempt used jellybabies as the atoms and cocktail sticks as the bonds between them. Eventually, a junior chemistry modelling set with plastic "atoms" and "bonds" was found, whereupon they discovered that carbon-60 looks exactly like a soccer ball, with an interlocking combination of hexagons and pentagons.

The applications of buckminsterfullerenes and other carbon forms with 80 or more components, could be wide-ranging. Japanese companies are trying to use them in night-vision goggles and they could have uses in Aids therapies.

Sir Harold said he intends to use his prize money to pay debts in a science film company that he helps to run.

tThe Nobel Prize for Physics went to three American scientists who discovered the "superfluid" property of helium at temperatures close to absolute zero. Douglas Osheroff, David Lee and Robert Richardson shared the award, which was described as "a breakthrough in low-temperature physics" by the citation committee.

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