Carbon is pecu­liar,” said Nobel lau­reate Sir Harold Kroto. “More pecu­liar than you think.” He was speaking to a standing-​​room-​​only audi­ence that filled the Raytheon Amphithe­ater on Monday after­noon for the latest install­ment of North­eastern University’s Pro­files in Inno­va­tion Pres­i­den­tial Speaker Series hosted by Nadine Aubry, dean of the Col­lege of Engineering.

Kroto shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chem­istry with his col­lab­o­ra­tors Richard Smalley and Robert Curl for their dis­covery of one of the universe’s most pecu­liar forms of carbon. In the mid-​​70s Kroto and his col­leagues had detected the pres­ence of a long-​​chain carbon mol­e­cule in the giant gas clouds lin­gering between dis­tant stars using state-​​of-​​the-​​art radio-​​telescopes.

Wishing to study those mol­e­cules more closely, Kroto got in touch with Curl and Smalley, who had devel­oped a method for vapor­izing metals and observing the behavior of the resulting par­ti­cles. “I thought, well, why not change things to graphite and maybe we could pro­duce the carbon chain mol­e­cules that we’d detected by radioas­tronomy,” Kroto said. Essen­tially, he explained, they’d be recre­ating the con­di­tions of the Red Giant star, IRC 10216, in which they’d dis­cov­ered those mol­e­cules. Doing so, he posited, should be able to iso­late them here on earth.

It was a simple idea and I knew it would work,” Kroto said. What he didn’t expect was what else he would find along the way.

While the stan­dard carbon species that had been known for decades were present in the analyses that his team pro­duced, one species stood out clearly among the rest. It was a giant peak that the researchers knew to rep­re­sent a mol­e­cule con­sisting of 60 carbon atoms and nothing else.

At this time the only other forms of known carbon-​​only mol­e­cules were var­ious forms of dia­mond and graphite. “It’s clearly saying there’s some­thing inter­esting here,” Kroto said. “And the only thing you really have is structure—it’s got to be some­thing beau­tiful. The ques­tion is what was it.”

During a tense and impas­sioned 10-​​day period that fol­lowed, the team ulti­mately landed on a per­fectly spher­ical mol­e­cule shaped some­thing like a soccer ball. At each vertex between hexa­gons and pen­tagons on the sphere, the researchers con­jec­tured, sat one of 60 carbon atoms. They named the mol­e­cule Buck­min­ster­fullerene after the designer of the geo­desic dome, which bears the same shape and which helped inspire their rev­e­la­tion about C60.

Now all they had to do was prove their idea. On a Friday five years later, they still had not done so when the journal Nature asked Kroto to review a paper from another research group. It’s title? “Solid C60: A new form of carbon.” It was a beau­tiful paper, Kroto said, one of the greatest in the whole of chem­istry. But it wasn’t his. Should he go to lunch or give up entirely? Those seemed like the only two options until a tech­ni­cian called his lab a few hours later with a spec­trum that would seal Kroto’s and his col­leagues’ fate.

NMR spec­troscopy is an ana­lyt­ical tech­nique that can dis­tin­guish between dif­ferent carbon types in a mol­e­cule. “One thing I’d dreamt about,” Kroto said, “was that in C60 all the carbon atoms are equiv­a­lent and there­fore with one line you should be able to prove its structure.”

Sir Harold Kroto drew a diverse audi­ence of stu­dents, fac­ulty, staff, and Boston area com­mu­nity mem­bers packing Raytheon amphithe­ater on Wednesday. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

The com­peting paper he had on his desk did not have that NMR spec­trum. Kroto now did. Six years later he, Curl, and Smalley accepted the Nobel Prize for proving their hunch about one of the universe’s most beau­tiful molecules.

It has since sparked an entirely new field of chem­istry, which has enabled inno­va­tions in energy, elec­tronics, and mate­rials sci­ence and helped power the nanoscience and nan­otech­nology rev­o­lu­tions we’ve wit­nessed in recent years.

The latest event in the Pres­i­den­tial Speaker series—which is designed to bring the world’s most cre­ative minds to campus for con­ver­sa­tions on inno­va­tion and entrepreneurship—was hosted by the Center for High Rate Nanoman­u­fac­turing.

In a Q-​​and-​​A fol­lowing the talk, David Luzzi, engi­neering pro­fessor and exec­u­tive director of the strategic secu­rity ini­tia­tive at North­eastern, asked Kroto what’s next for carbon-​​cage mol­e­cules and fullerenes. “You have to be able to create what­ever cage you want,” Kroto responded. The fullerenes, which also include other spher­ical mol­e­cules of dif­ferent carbon num­bers as well as single-​​walled carbon nan­otubes, have great poten­tial for shifting the par­a­digm of nanoscience, but without exact con­trol, that shift may never happen, he said.

In response to another ques­tion, Kroto noted that none of the major break­throughs of his career—including the dis­covery of C60—was funded by a research grant. Instead, he said, existing resources within his insti­tu­tional depart­ment enabled the find­ings. He called the sci­ence research-​​funding sit­u­a­tion in the United States hor­rific. “It’s totally coun­ter­pro­duc­tive as far as the cre­ative process is con­cerned,” he said. “You need the freedom of mind to be cre­ative, you can’t be wor­rying about where the next penny’s coming from.”