Monthly Archives: March 2013

Creative Science

One meets many interesting people to interview, those that have climbed mountains, run businesses and made millions but up until, the day I met Sir Harry Kroto I had never met a man who had discovered a natural substance never identified before but which could change the way the world powers itself.

Sir Harry Kroto was in London to give a lecture at the Royal Institution and we conducted our interview in its basement, sitting on bar stools not 4 feet from Michael Faraday’s lab – where he invented the technology behind the electric motor.

Sir Harry discovered the third form of carbon, known as C60. It wouldn’t be fair to say he came across it by accident, because he has been searching for something, even though it wasn’t that. It’s a bit  like searching for a pound coin which you’d lost down the sofa but finding a wad of £10 notes instead.

Despite the fact that I had never heard of C60 and I’m guessing you haven’t either, it is one of those discoveries that could have an impact on the way the whole world lives.

Carbon in some form has been known for millennia. Who knows what they called it, but even the Neanderthals would have known of carbon, because when you burn wood, you get charcoal and graphite which are forms of carbon.  Diamonds are another form of carbon, although probably not as well known by Neanderthals. The third form of carbon is C60 perhaps the least imaginatively named but it was discovered in 1985, by Sir Harry Kroto and his colleagues Rick Smalley, Bob Curl and the students Jim Heath, Sean O’Brien and Yuan Liu.

Kroto and his colleagues were looking at what was going on in a carbon star. Almost immediately they noticed something odd.  Kroto tells me “We had signals for some small carbon species, and then we got a massive signal for one with 60 carbons. Now 60 is a special number…. Even the Babylonians realised that, .. [they called it]the hexadecimal system. 5 goes into it, 10 goes into it, 6 goes into it, 3 goes into it. I had the strong gut feeling that it was so beautiful a solution that it just had to be right.”

Odd though it is to non-scientists, the sole fact that the phenomenon they were analysing was so associated with the number 60 – was apparently an unmistakable signal that what they had stumbled on, was very significant indeed.

That discovery earned Kroto and his colleagues the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1996.

The fact that we are sitting next to Michael Farady’s lab is no accident. In 1831 Faraday showed that electricity could be made by a magnet moving inside a wire coil. It paved the way for every electric motor we use today.  It was a breakthrough that changed the world. Scientists believe we need a new Faraday moment, a disruptive technology that is going to power our global economy with clean, cheap, low-carbon energy and the C60 could provide just that.

Rather shockingly, the world is abundant in energy resources, we just don’t know how to access them properly. For example, enough energy from sunlight falls on the earth In a couple of hours to supply the energy needs of mankind for a whole year — we just need to be able to harness it on a much bigger scale than we can do now.

The C60 molecule should enable us to take a much bigger step in harnessing that power and providing clean energy to the world,  What you have in a solar cell is a molecule that can accept the sun’s rays and separate the electron, which is for electricity, from the positive charge. C60 is shaped like a ball and the electrons have a fatal attraction for that ball and quickly jump top it.  It’s the best molecule for storing those electrons. Therefore it has massively improved the potential for boosting the efficiency of the solar industry. In fact it can increase the efficiency of a solar cell by a factor of about 10.

Kroto’ father was a German refugee tailor who started a business printing messages on balloons. He insisted that his son Harry concentrate on science and maths. But Harry’ first interest was art and graphics.

He tells me that his interest in design and architecture enabled him to quickly understand the shape of the C60 molecule because it was so similar to other shapes he had seen in architecture. In fact the molecule is also known as a Fullerene , buckyball and the Buckminsterfullerene., so-called because it resembles the architectural dome-shaped building of Richard Buckminster Fuller, which Kroto had been reading about and so much admired.

The lesson of Kroto’s discovery isn’t just one about the serendipity of finding something important. It’s about the irony that in researching something of no obvious use, you can actually find something which can revolutionise the world. It’s about the importance of studying something for the sake of knowledge. It’s about the importance of fundamental research.

As his wife waits in the background to drag him to another meeting and the officials from the Royal Institution hover close by to take him to a briefing of their own, almost as an aside he tells me “I’m very different from everybody else I think, because I don’t do things that are important on a large scale. I do things that are important to me from an intellectual point of view, and that’s why we did this experiment. It was not important, it didn’t look important beforehand, and that’s a very important factor. That the discovery was made in an experiment which did not look important.”

Kroto leaves me with the words of another famous scientist, Louis Pasteur:  “Fortune favours only the prepared mind”. It is, Kroto believes,  “extremely important to prepare a mind with as broad an interest, and real interest at a deep level, as possible.” In other words, the more general your interest, the more advance you can make in a specific field.

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The Scanadu - Inspired by Star Trek's Tricorder

The Scanadu – Inspired by Star Trek’s Tricorder

The technology, hyperbole and ambitions of space make us feel we are stretching ourselves to the limits; a testing of the possibilities of both physics and human endurance. However, the truth is that we have explored so little of space, that while its exploration has demonstrated what might be possible it has also emphasised how much we are trapped in our corner of the Universe.

If the Solar system was your bedroom, the space we have explored is not a step, not even a movement of the leg from the bed. It is but a twitch of the big toe, and possibly not event that.

Distances are so large, so out of the range of own experiences – the only way to understand them is to make more earthly comparisons.  If one normal human stride represented three million six hundred thousand miles, getting to the moon, would just be a toe’s breadth away  – 2.4 inches. A trip to the sun would be a trip of 26 strides.  Take 242 steps, about half a mile, and in our scale model you will have reached Pluto. But the solar system doesn’t end with Pluto and the Universe stretches beyond normal comprehension ahead of our own solar system. [1]

And yet for this small twitch of the toe, the 2.4 inches of space we have explored with manned spacecraft, we have already derived huge new technologies and understandings not just of the universe around us – but looking back down at our own home – grown new understandings of our own planet. It is that understanding that we have come to explore with this latest programme in the Horizons series for BBC World News.

On April 12th 1981 I went to the Kennedy Space Centre. As I write this I am looking at the commemorative stamped envelope I bought as an 18 year old on that trip, which is sitting on my desk. I saw a gleaming white building so large, I was told that clouds sometimes form inside it. This was where rockets lefts us heading to a Star Trek-like future, or that was how I imagined it.


When we visited NASA this time for our programme on Space Innovation it was with some surprise that I realised we were visiting their base in a less glamorous location. Based at the NASA Ames Research Centre at Moffeett Field, the centre is visible from the highway which runs next to it, easily identifiable by the skeleton of an aircraft hanger which has been half demolished but which beurocracy has interfered and stopped anyone finishing the job.


Security is high at Moffeet Field and we don’t only have to wear name badges and carry our passports, we also have to be accompanied by a NASA official and since we are foreign, we also have to wear a big red badge to highlight to everyone that we are not natives.


Moffeet Field serves two purpose. Its first is as a high security base for NASA scientists to develop new technologies for studying the earth and the universe around us. But it also serves as a science park to attract technology companies whose work might be of interest to NASA in the future, but who for the moment work independently. The idea is that by bringing scientists close together physically they might be encouraged to share ideas which benefit them all.


NASA has long claimed its expertise in science helps both space exploration and more earthly pursuits. Since 1976, NASA – an acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration — has documented over 1,700 examples of technology transfer. The space agency has filed over 6,300 patents with the U.S. government. Those patents have touched us all in unexpected ways.

Take the camera on smartphones.  The technology behind it was developed here in California by NASA.  Called CMOS, this digital imaging chip is at the heart of many photo-snapping devices from cameras to phones to satellite cameras used in space missions. Ironically, as we saw in the first series of Horizons, satellites are now sending up second-hand mobile phones so that the camera designed for space, converted for consumer use are now being sent back into space because they are lighter and cheaper than anything now designed exclusively for space use.

The chief technologist at NASA is Professor Mason Peck. He leads the effort to help communicate how space mission science can benefit the day-to-day lives of ordinary people.

What is striking about two of the most important conversations I had at NASA, was how linked the people and the real inventions are with the world of Television, Hollywood and sheer fantasy. When I asked Mason Peck how he got his inspiration he said:

“I’ve always been a big fan of Arthur C Clarke… I think he’s vision, not just of what technology could bring us, in terms of solutions, but also the human dimension. I think Arthur C Clarke’s vision is bringing together people thanks to technology, which I really see as an important role for technology.  We’re scared off by technology. Frankenstein is an example of technology gone crazy, or human pride gone crazy through technology, but I think that’s only one part of the story. I think when we really pay attention to it, we understand that technology offers more benefits than we think.”

As for the technologies themselves, Peck says “What we’re moving toward now at NASA is technologies which will enable much safer, much greener and much more cost-effective air travel. Winglets – straightforward application of engineering science but it’s a technology that has saved 4 billion dollars in fuel costs over the last few decades. Even small tweaks can have a radical impact. Some day we may see hybrid electric aircraft. Green Flight Challenge competition at NASA – the winning aircraft achieved 400 miles per gallon per passenger which is extraordinary. That’s 10 times more efficient, 10 times lower cost, 10 times less carbon to the atmosphere, 10 times more distance.”

Personally I think the next big technology that will change life in the way the Internet did, is 3D printing. I never thought of the 3D printer as a space technology, although it is fast becoming one. Peck tells me “One of the concepts that we’re working on at NASA that will completely change how we do space exploration, if they’re successful is using 3D printers to build structures on the moon out of the dirt and earth found on the moon. It could be a game changing technology.”

Peck is not the only one who took his inspiration from the world of Science Fiction.

Walter de Brouwer is the co-founder, Scanadu. AS a child he watched Star Trek and was moved by the  hand held devices they used to check your vital health signs. The gizmo was called a Tricorder.  Unlike millions of other children, instead of using a hair brush to scan their toys in their bedroom, he went out and built one for real.

In his Laboratory, he holds the Scanadu to his head, presses a button and downloads 5 vital statistics to his smart phone app. He thinks the product could be on the market very soon and used in space in the future, enabling future spacemen to take a doctor in their pocket.

This is an odd world in which leading scientists achieve as adults what inspired them in films and television when they were young. In turn that inspires writers to create new films which in turn inspires future scientists to achieve what we thought was only possible in the world of movies.

We are, it seems only limited by our imagination





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