Accidently Winning the Nobel Prize

Another topic Professor Zhengwei Pan spoke of in the lecture I previously mentioned was being timely with research. He emphasized that immediately analyzing unexpected results was key to a new discovery.

As an example, he told the story of Buckminsterfullerene, a soccer-ball shaped molecule that won its discoverers the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. A buckyball–the pet name that’s caught on with the scientific community–is made up of sixty carbons arranged into twenty hexagons and twelve pentagons with a carbon at each vertex and a bond along each edge.

The discovery–like many major discoveries–came about accidently. Harry Kroto and his collaborator Robert Curl were studying unsaturated carbons in space dust. In order to characterize the molecules they were seeing in the dust clouds, they needed to make them here on Earth. This was a task neither was up to, so Curl called his coworker Richard Smalley, an expert in experimental physical chemistry. Smalley set out to make unsaturated carbon chains by hitting a sheet of graphite with a laser, but he ended up finding large clusters of 60 and 70 carbons. When analyzing the molecules with mass spectrometry, Smalley found the clusters were spherical–or as close to spherical as a molecule can get.

The threesome was surprised, since they were aiming to make carbons plasmas found in space not stable molecules. After much discussion, they came up with the highly symmetric soccer-ball reminiscent of the geometric come-like architecture of Buckminster Fuller. They named the molecule after their muse, published the paper and collected their prize.

Because the group analysed their unknown results, they walked away with the most famous prize in all of science. What would have happened if they had shelved those results because it wasn’t what they set out to find? Someone else would have discovered C60 and come to the same geometric conclusion. The prize would have been lost to Kroto, Smalley, and Curl.

So maybe it’s time to reopen that “failed” project that gave you such strange results. Who knows? You may have stumbled onto something new.

One thought on “Accidently Winning the Nobel Prize

  1. Having had a few conversations with Harry (Dr Kroto) I can say that there is no end to his curiosity and willingness to explore odd results…. Those three earned a deserved that prize…. this story also highlights how great research can be done at small schools. See me post on Friday for details!

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