21 January 2011

Nobel Laureate leads next Science Café


What captures the mind of a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry?

If he's Sir Harry Kroto, it's pondering the birth of modern science and the people who delivered it into the world.

Kroto, the Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry at Florida State University, will lead a free-flowing discussion on that topic at the Feb. 1 Science Café. Held at Ray's Steel City Saloon, a popular Tallahassee watering hole, the 6:15 to 7:30 p.m. event is sponsored by the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.

"I'm going to talk about the time when scientists recognized that mathematics was the language in which the universe spoke," said Kroto, sitting in his office in FSU's new chemistry building. He'd returned from India only a few days earlier.
Kroto gives about 70 talks around the world each year — "I travel too much," he says — and is known as a lively speaker.

"Harry's enthusiasm for communicating science to society is unmatched and infectious," said Naresh Dalal, an FSU chemistry professor and a board member of the Tallahassee Scientific Society. "His Science Café presentation should be a memorable treat and promises to lead to some lively discussion and debate."

But make sure you arrive early to get a good seat, as the man who co-discovered "buckyballs" is sure to draw a crowd.

Kroto, along with fellow scientists Robert Curl and Richard Smalley, won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of fullerenes, an entirely new class of carbon compounds. They named the most common fullerene — which is shaped like a soccer ball — "buckminsterfullerene," in tribute to the late Buckminister Fuller (1895-1983), who developed the geodesic dome.

At the upcoming Science Café, however, the renowned 71-year-old chemist will turn his attention to the contributions of scientists who lived from about 1600 to 1700.

It was during this era (part of the Scientific Revolution, which stretches very roughly from 1550 to 1700), that modern science was born.

In addition to Galileo, Kroto said, "people like Francis Bacon, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Hooke, Newton, Huygens and Leibniz — this is the group that basically invented modern science."

These creative thinkers transformed the way we understand our world.

"It was the first time that an equation was applied to a physical process or physical system, and that allowed such things as predictability, for instance, and that allowed one to determine something fundamental about the universe and objects in the universe."

Although we live in the midst of a technology boom, Kroto doesn't think we're in the midst of a new scientific revolution today.

"I don't see a renaissance in science at all," he said. "I see us just going on and moving forward pretty well systematically, in a sort of statistical way. We've got the methods, now it's just moving on and developing more understanding, trying to solve some of the problems."