A Futurist’s Last Act Was to Transform Chemistry—After Death

·11 min read
Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty

“Imagine human beings have this tiny little band where you and I can tune in, and we find that that is less than a millionth of reality,” Buckminster Fuller once said. “Just think of it. This is reality—these are the realities—and you and I can see less than a millionth of reality.” Fuller might best be known today as the architectural designer behind the geodesic dome, but he saw all of his inventions as expressions of a lifelong effort to expand the range of the human mind’s perception of the universe, most of which was invisible to the naked eye.

Fuller met this challenge by developing an elaborate system of geometry, but he was also enthusiastic about the possibilities of scientific instruments. Since the forties, he had marveled at the power of the spectroscope, a device that allowed researchers to analyze matter based on its interactions with radiation. Two years after his death in 1983, it provided the backdrop for the most lasting tribute that he would ever receive—an accidental discovery that would transform the fields of chemistry and nanotechnology forever.

The central player in Fuller’s greatest moment of posthumous glory was Harold W. Kroto, who was born in England in 1939. Kroto studied chemistry at the University of Sheffield, but he seriously contemplated a career in architecture or graphic design. While working at Bell Labs, he made what his wife, Margaret, described as “a kind of pilgrimage” to Fuller’s famous geodesic dome for the United States pavilion at the 1967 Montreal Expo, and he even thought about writing to Fuller for a job researching “the organized growth of massive urban structures.”

Instead, Kroto went to the University of Sussex to conduct spectroscopic studies of long carbon chains in outer space, which he theorized were generated in the atmospheres of the aging stars known as red giants. In 1984, he saw a chance to test his ideas. At a conference, a microwave spectroscopist named Robert Curl told Kroto about the laser supersonic cluster beam apparatus, a huge machine—located at Rice University in Houston—that had been designed by the physical chemist Richard Smalley to produce aggregates of any given element on demand.

This Was Buckminster Fuller’s Plan to Cover Manhattan With a Giant Dome

After a laser vaporized the material, helium blew it into a vacuum chamber, where it cooled into clusters that could be measured by a mass spectrometer. According to Curl, it would work perfectly well with carbon, and by introducing different gases, it could reproduce the conditions inside a red giant to see if the long chains appeared. Curl was especially interested in whether they might be responsible for the diffuse interstellar bands, which were dark lines in astronomical spectra caused by unidentified matter in the space between the stars.

An enthusiastic Kroto went to meet the team at Rice. Smalley was skeptical of Kroto’s “cockamamie theory,” but he decided to give him a chance. The following summer, they scheduled a second visit, which Smalley still saw as an unwelcome interruption: “I thought Harry was sort of a loose nut,” he admitted, “and I just wanted to get rid of him.” To break the news to his graduate students Jim Heath and Sean O’Brien, he asked jokingly, “What’s the worst possible thing that could happen?” They responded, “Harry’s coming.”

Their lack of excitement was due to their awareness that similar research had already been conducted at Exxon, which the Houston team attempted to replicate the week before Kroto’s arrival. When they trained the laser on a graphite disk, it worked as expected, but the settings on the computer display led them to overlook a peak for C60, or molecules of sixty carbon atoms. The spike was enormous, but although one member of the group—probably a graduate student named Yuan Liu—made a note of it, no one paid much attention.

Kroto officially started on September 1, 1985. The first stage of their work was devoted to calibrating the equipment, with helium used as a carrier gas, and when they ran a spectrometric analysis, they noticed the C60 peak. Over the following days, as they introduced hydrogen and nitrogen into the helium stream, pronounced peaks continued to be seen for large clusters with even numbers of carbon atoms. When they increased the backing pressure of the helium, they observed a gigantic spike at sixty atoms, which caught their interest for the first time.

Under some conditions, C60 was dozens of times more abundant than most of the other clusters, implying that there was something special about the number 60 itself. The absence of reactivity pointed to a closed molecule that lacked dangling bonds, and the discussion soon turned to the possibility of a sphere. Smalley glanced at the others. “Who was that guy who built those domes?”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>The Montreal Expo Dome, designed by Fuller.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Ralf Roletschek</div>

The Montreal Expo Dome, designed by Fuller.

Ralf Roletschek

Like Kroto, Smalley had seen the Montreal Expo Dome, but he had never given much thought to Fuller. The team didn’t have a crystallographer, and no one could remember the details of the dome—they thought that it was made entirely of hexagons, which was consistent with the geometry of carbon bonds. Kroto had once constructed a paper star dome from a kit for his children, and he suspected that some of the faces might have been pentagons as well.

For now, they decided to look into Fuller. “Here, after all, we had a hexagonal sheet,” Smalley recalled, referring to the structure of graphite. “Maybe if we figured out how Buckminster Fuller did this, we could figure out how to curl these things around on each other.” At the university library, Smalley checked out the book The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller by Robert Marks. Leafing through it, he somehow missed the numerous images of pentagons in geodesic structures—an essential part of their geometry. He was most struck by a photo of the Union Tank Car Dome in Louisiana, which seemed at first glance to consist solely of hexagons.

The team continued the conversation over dinner, arguing over possible solutions and drawing sketches on napkins. Afterward, Jim Heath bought a package of what would be variously described as gummy bears, jelly beans, or “Juicy Fruit gum balls.” At home, he tried to build a structure out of toothpicks, using the candy pieces as connectors, but it was impossible to make a sphere using only hexagons, which fell apart before they could form an enclosed shape.

Smalley was tackling the problem at his own house. After trying unsuccessfully for hours to write a program to generate a solution on his home computer, he started to cut hexagons out of paper. When he stuck them together with tape, they wouldn’t produce a sphere without overlapping, and even if he cheated slightly, they refused to make a closed surface. Feeling discouraged, he went into the kitchen around midnight and cracked open a beer.

It was the kind of quiet moment that was ideal for creative insights, and he suddenly remembered what Kroto had said about the pentagons. He cut out a piece with five sides, and when he taped hexagons around it, it formed a shallow bowl. Adding one layer at a time, he ended up with a sphere with twenty hexagons and twelve pentagons. Its sixty vertices were all the same, indicating that it could produce a hollow structure of identical carbon atoms, and it seemed remarkably stable. When Smalley dropped the paper ball on the floor, it bounced.

The following day, Smalley called the office from the car phone in his black Audi, relating his discovery to Curl’s answering machine. When the group reconvened, Smalley tossed the sphere onto the coffee table. Kroto was “ecstatic and overtaken by its beauty,” and they gradually concluded that it was a previously unknown third allotrope of carbon, along with graphite and diamond, in which the arrangement of the chemical bonds produced radically different characteristics.

Hoping to learn more about the polyhedron itself, Smalley placed a call to Bill Veech, the chairman of the mathematics department at Rice, who said that he would check with one of his students. When Veech called back, he found himself talking to Curl instead. “I could explain this to you in a number of ways,” Veech said, “but what you’ve got there, boys, is a soccer ball.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>A comparison of the buckeyball with Fuller's Hexa-Pent.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy HarperCollins</div>

A comparison of the buckeyball with Fuller's Hexa-Pent.

Courtesy HarperCollins

None of them had seen the obvious. The arrangement of twelve pentagons and twenty hexagons—known more formally as a truncated icosahedron—was identical to the soccer ball’s familiar pattern of black and white panels. Heath went to buy one from a sporting goods store, while another student rushed to purchase the campus bookshop’s complete supply of molecular modeling kits, which they used to build the first of many models to come.

The next issue was what to call it. They pitched many names, mostly using the suffix -ene, which designated a structure based on a ring of alternating single and double bonds. Their proposals included “ballene,” “spherene,” “soccerene,” and “carbosoccer,” while “footballene” was discarded because it would confuse Americans. Although its origins were later disputed, Kroto was almost certainly the one who suggested “buckminsterfullerene,” which the others accepted with misgivings. At one point, according to Kroto, Smalley said bluntly, “Your name sucks.”

They wrote a short piece for Nature, the most prestigious scientific journal, in which they emphasized their approach to the problem of a closed molecule: “Only a spheroidal structure appears likely to satisfy this criterion, and thus Buckminster Fuller’s studies were consulted.” Kroto wanted to include a picture of Heath’s candy framework, but another student had already eaten it. After flying back to Sussex that evening, Kroto immediately looked for his paper star dome, which he confirmed had twelve pentagons, twenty hexagons, and sixty vertices.

It was the most exciting breakthrough in chemistry in a generation. In the months and years that followed, the team learned that a similar structure had been theorized by others, notably the chemists David E. H. Jones and Eiji Osawa. Its accidental creation in a laboratory setting shook up the entire field, and it aroused widespread popular interest, with references to “buckyballs”—a name that the team members used among themselves—soon appearing in print.

Throughout the discussion, Fuller was justifiably prominent. A passing mention of his name had put them on the right track, and the analogy to the dome, which was sometimes seen as fanciful, was really beautiful and exact. In the classic dome, most of the triangles formed hexagonal groups, along with a few strategically placed pentagons. (Fuller and his associate Shoji Sadao had made the underlying structure explicit in their 1974 patent for the Hexa-Pent Dome, which consisted of slightly more than half of a sphere with twelve pentagons and twenty hexagons.)

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy HarperCollins</div>
Courtesy HarperCollins

In 1996, Kroto, Smalley, and Curl were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. All three men have passed away—Robert Curl died on July 3—but the story of buckminsterfullerene has barely begun. Fantastic claims have been made for its possible uses, with many proposals centering on the nanotubes that could be formed by adding rings to the sphere. With twelve pentagons, a closed structure could be made of any number of hexagons except for one, producing an entire family of molecules known collectively as fullerenes.

Although their practical applications are still limited, if their time ever comes, Fuller will have a secure place in the history of nanotechnology, which the fullerenes transformed overnight into a serious field. In the meantime, the buckyball has finally made an impact where it all began—in outer space. In 2015, the year before Kroto’s death, a spectrum of C60 ions was matched with two previously unidentified diffuse interstellar bands, and just last month, astronomers at the University of Arizona proposed a model of how buckyballs could be produced by dying stars.

Decades earlier, Smalley had noted that the potential implications were profound: “If fullerenes have been present in interstellar space...they could have provided the first real surfaces in the universe....How fitting if the geodesic shape that provides such flexible stability to modern manmade structures also turns out to have helped build the very first solid things.” Fuller would have seen it as the strongest possible confirmation of his intuitions, and it was a legacy that he truly deserved. As Smalley rightly concluded, “Buckminster Fuller would have loved it.”

From the book INVENTOR OF THE FUTURE: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller by Alec Nevala-Lee. Copyright © 2022 by Alec Nevala-Lee. To be published on August 2, 2022 by Dey Street, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

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