Published 29 June 2011

Sir Harry Kroto: the Third Man

Sir Harry Kroto gave a talk yesterday that was unlike any other lecture at the Lindau Meetings so far. Kroto didn’t talk about the work he had done, or about his life as a scientist. Instead, he gave a dazzling presentation showing scores of images to his audience. He kept shifting gears from art to science, to education, only to switch back again.

At one point, Kroto showed a scene from the movie ‘The Third Man’, for reasons that will become clear later in this blog post. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the movie, ‘The Third Man’ is about a young man, Holly Martins, who plans to attend the funeral of an old friend, Harry Lime, in post-war Vienna. It soon becomes clear that Lime’s dead has been staged, and that he is up to his neck in crime. Lime has disappeared in Vienna, a city that for Holly soon becomes a foreign and hostile labyrinth.

Harry Kroto said that ‘the Third Man’ was one of his favourite movies. I could see why. Kroto’s lecture and this movie classic have some common themes. Let’s follow Holly and Kroto into the maze, and see what hidden gems and provoking insights they have to offer.

Lime is an escape artist. The Viennese sewer system is where he hides from the law and moves about the city. Holly only discovers that the tunnel system is Lime’s hiding place after he reconstruct the events of the evening when he got a glimpse of Harry.

Holly’s method of finding Lime features some of the hallmarks of the scientific process: experimentation, replication and discovery. Kroto stressed how important the scientific method is in our search for truth: “science is the only philosophical construct to determine the truth with any degree of reliability.”

Education should involve teaching young people how they can decide what they are told is true. Kroto asked us how many of us knew the evidence that Galileo and Copernicus had that the earth revolves around the sun? Not many hands were raised. Most of us had accepted the fact, without knowing the evidence. Kroto’s message: “Find out what the evidence is, for everything that you accept.” Otherwise, anything goes.

In a crucial scene in ‘the Third Man’, Harry asks Holly to join him in his criminal operations, selling diluted quantities of penicillin on the black market, while riding a Ferris wheel. The scam that Harry has set up is hurting thousands of people. Holly expresses his concerns for those that will suffer from his actions. Harry replies: “Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”

As if he was replying to Lime directly, Kroto said that “penicillin is a miracle”. It is one of the greatest gifts of chemistry to humankind, alongside anesthetics. It certainly isn’t something to withhold and dilute at the expense of others.

In fact, not a single dot can be spared. Scientists have the duty and moral obligation to not involve themselves in research that will harm a fellow human. He cited Joseph Rotblat, who was one of the few physicists who turned his back on the Manhattan project: “We appeal, as human beings, to human beings: remember your humanity, and forget the rest.” We don’t need any more atomic bombs.

Towards the end of his talk, Kroto devoted a few words to his own discovery buckminsterfullerene. Kroto always regarded buckyballs as the Third Man, behind diamond and graphene. It was an elusive molecule: nobody expected it existed at all. Even after Kroto and his colleagues had proven that they had made buckminsterfullerene, doubts remained about whether the molecule occured in nature. See what Harry Kroto had to say about that in 1996:

More than a decade later, astronomers announced that they had found the spectroscopic signature of buckminsterfulleren in interstellar nebulae. between the stars.


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