Today, we make an utterly new material. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Diamond and graphite are the
two old familiar forms of carbon -- the empyrean
and the earthly forms -- the sacred and the
profane. It makes a nice dichotomy. But now we've
thrown our neat classification out of balance. Now
we have a new form of carbon entirely, and it is
touching our imaginations.
This form of carbon is made of 60 atoms. Chemists
had thought there should be some way to make big
carbon molecules, but they'd never managed to do
it. Then, in 1985, a group at Rice University
heated carbon vapor to 15,000 degrees. They
actually produced tiny amounts of carbon-60.
But the stuff was weird. It didn't form chains. It
formed balls. Richard Smalley couldn't figure out
the structure. He went home and tried to make a
molecule out of paper. Nothing worked. How can you
make a ball from 60 carbon atoms?
They finally tripped to the answer -- as we so
often do -- by looking in the wrong place. Someone
in the group remembered a book by Buckminster
Fuller. Someone remembered Fuller's geodesic domes.
Fuller approximated a sphere the most efficient way
you can -- as long as you use plane surfaces. He
made his domes from alternating hexagons and
pentagons. He wasn't first to do that. You make
soccer balls the same way, with white hexagons and
So they called their new molecule
Buckminsterfullerene. That's a mouthful.
Most people just call those remarkable molecules
And they've electrified the scientific world. This
strange new stuff hasn't found its place in our
life yet. But it dangles such bait before us.
Combine it with potassium, and you have a new
superconductor. Combine it with other elements, and
we'll surely create still better superconductors.
Suddenly everyone is looking for new applications.
Meanwhile, Bucky Balls are hard to make. It's all
too easy to burn them up while you're making them.
They cost about $500 a gram as I write. They may
well cost a lot less when you hear this episode.
This new substance has a Platonic perfection of
form that's irresistable to theoreticians. It
suggests a huge potential for human use. But more
than anything else, it carries the excitement of
Smalley allows that that's the real payoff for a
scientist. It is that magic moment when a huge
abyss of newness opens out of one ordinary moment
in a laboratory.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Richard Smalley tells his own story of the discovery
of carbon 60 in
Smalley, R.E., Great Balls of Carbon: The Story of
Buckminsterfullerene. The Sciences,
March/April 1991, pp. 22-28.
The literature -- both popular and technical -- on
Buckminsterfullerene is exploding. Any bibliography
I might include here will be inadequate.
Furthermore, what we know today, June 10th, 1991,
will be out of date very soon.
Everything above was written in 1991. Since then,
the discovery of Buckminsterfullerene has won the
Nobel Prize in chemistry, and Bucky Balls have been
named "The State Molecule of Texas"! For an image
you can rotate with your mouse, see the
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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