Published 10 July 2012 by

Kroto: Science is “lost in translation”

If you don’t know English, you can still understand Shakespeare’s stories, Sir Harold Kroto told me after his lecture at Lindau on Thursday. But, crucially, “you cannot understand his use of language, because language is a cultural thing – and the culture is lost in translation.” 

‘Lost in translation’ was the title of Kroto’s lecture that morning, the final plenary session of the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting. But English wasn’t the language under the microscope – it was mathematics, the language of science. 
“To understand the culture of science, you really need to learn the language,” said Kroto. He thinks some people are not prepared to. And he can understand why: “It takes a lot of effort to learn a language at a later age if you haven’t learnt it when you were young.”
Kroto won his Nobel prize in 1996 for the discovery of Buckminsterfullerene, aka C60 – sixty carbon atoms arranged in a closed shell. At school he did well in physics and chemistry but liked drawing and tennis just as much. It might have been his father’s balloon making business, where he used to help out during school holidays, that got him interested in chemistry. Or perhaps it was his hobby doing photography, which required him to carefully make solutions.

Harry Kroto 2

After studying for his A-levels, Kroto continued on to university because that was what was expected of him. But at that point he had no desire to be a scientist, let alone win a Nobel prize. “I went to the University of Sheffield to do chemistry because I was better at it than other subjects,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about being a scientist, I was thinking about having a good time and getting away from home. I didn’t even know what an academic was.”
He made the most of university, playing tennis, becoming art editor for the university magazine, painting theatre sets and along the way meeting his wife, Margaret, who is sat alongside him while we talk during the lunch break at the Lindau meeting.
It’s easy to see why Kroto’s talk was scheduled as the last one of the morning. He is a good enough communicator to keep even the most sleep-deprived audience members (and bloggers) awake. And, as noted by the chair of the morning sessions, the organizers knew he’d be able to whiz through his slides quickly enough to make up time if previous speakers overran. Perhaps because of this, Kroto worries that some of the young researchers in the audience might not have quite understood his point.
“There are three kinds of audiences,” he says. “Sometimes you’re preaching to the converted, sometimes there are people who understand what I’m getting at but don’t like it, and sometimes people like it but don’t understand a word of what I’m saying.”
“Probably the majority will have been in the third group,” his wife suggested. “I think so here,” he said, “but there are probably a number in the third group too who enjoyed this thing but had no idea what I was getting at.” 
So how would he sum up the crux of his talk for anyone that might have missed his point? “It’s about time that people realised that the most important thing is to recognise what is actually true,” he says. Science is the best way to arrive at the truth, and you need to know mathematics to understand science.
But his view of science doesn’t seem to be entirely favourable. He compares science with a boxing match against the universe. A scientist is someone who “goes into the lab and gets punched on the nose Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and knocked out in the first round,” he says. “Perhaps once a month they get to the third round, once a year to the fifth round… and if they’re lucky, or not so lucky, they get to the fifteenth round and win the Nobel prize.” 
Not so lucky? Winning a Nobel is “not all good”, Kroto explains. “It diverted me from what I really want to do.” If he hadn’t won the Nobel, he’d be spending more time at home in his studio (he still draws, making logos and other graphics) and less time giving interviews in his lunch break. “But that’s what I do, because I feel like that’s what I have to do and should do. Many Nobel laureates feel a responsibility to speak on behalf of the scientific community,” he says.
Kroto does not just want people to understand mathematics so they can appreciate the beauty of science. He wants politicians and others in positions of power to make decisions based on rational thinking. “It’s very important that people who make decisions on technical issues understand the culture that created the modern world,” he said. 
And though he has no objections to an individual’s right to believe whatever they like, he’d like religion – “irrational” thinking – to stay away from the state. At the moment, he says the “tentacles of dogma” are beginning to creep into politics. “I think the enlightenment is under threat,” he said. “But like I said in my talk, I’m optimistic,” he said. “I’ll be well out of here. But you won’t be…”