The Most Beautiful Molecule: An Adventure in Chemistry

Aurum Press, 1994

The Most Beautiful Molecule: the Discovery of the Buckball

Wiley, 1995

The molecule in question is buckminsterfullerene, otherwise carbon-60. It is the third stable form of this vital chemical element. Two other forms, diamond and graphite, have been known for centuries. Yet buckminsterfullerene was discovered only in 1985, by the British chemist Harry Kroto and Americans Rick Smalley and Bob Curl, who were awarded the 1996 Nobel chemistry prize for their work. It took five years just to prove its existence, but when proof came so did a flood of promising applications. Before long, it was the subject of all of the top ten most cited research papers in chemistry.

Although it was found by serendipity, buckminsterfullerene is perhaps the ultimate ‘designer’ molecule. The story of its discovery appealed to me not only as a lapsed chemist (whatever did happen to that Ph D?) but as a follower of architecture and design-subjects which turn out, possibly not entirely coincidentally, to be interests of Kroto’s as well. This is not the only place where arts and sciences meet in my account, which also brings in discussions of aesthetics, literary theory, and the sociology of science.

One reviewer too kindly noted that The Most Beautiful Molecule would be important reading for those doling out the Nobel Prizes. Kroto, Smalley and Curl were in fact named the winners of the 1996 prize in chemistry, while the book was a finalist in the Los Angeles Times book prizes for that year.

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