Carbon is wonderful, isn’t it? you can make all kinds of things out of carbon. Hell, some of my best friends are made of carbon! So, as anyone reading this blog might have come to realise, deep down I’m a chemist, researching interstellar carbon and the atmospheres of carbon stars. I’m also a former graphic design professional.
Interestingly, this gives me a lot in common with one Sir Harry Kroto. The name might be unfamiliar to many people, but Harry Kroto is a scientist who should be known to anyone who studies carbon. On a personal note, he spent his entire career working in Sheffield, which is practically just up the road from me. In the 1970s he spent years researching polyynes — long chain hydrocarbons now known to occur around carbon stars. His work, however, had an unexpected twist, and in 1996 he shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery of Fullerenes. Now, isn’t it a bizarre act of serendipity for a graphic designer to discover one of the most geometrically perfect molecules known to humanity?
Fullerenes are the extended group name for essentially any carbon cage molecule, named after the prototypical molecule discovered by Kroto and his colleagues, Buckminsterfullerene or C60. While a bit of a mouthful to have to mention in a seminar, buckminsterfullerene was named after the visionary american architect and designer R. Buckminster Fuller, who popularised the geodesic dome, now a mainstay of science fiction. Interestingly though, the molecule’s existence was first postulated as early as 1970 by a japanese scientist named Eiji Osawa, who noticed that a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon corannulene was a subset of a football shape (or a soccer ball, if you’re from the US).
Both fullerene and corannulene remain to this day, of great interest to us plucky astrochemists, especially those of us who study the elusive diffuse interstellar bands (colloquially referred to as DIBs). Actually, they’re both amongst the various candidates for certain DIB carrier molecules, and have been investigated for a number of other things. Actually a slightly more complex version of fullerenes, affectionately known as carbon onions, have been proposed as the cause of a bizarre spectral bump that appears in most interstellar spectra at 2175 angstroms. I say proposed, because a lot of these things are infuriatingly difficult to prove conclusively.
Most of us, if we’re honest, probably wouldn’t be working on it if it was easy though. I’m sure any good scientist enjoys a puzzle!