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Carbon in nano and outer space

Nobel Prize winner Sir Harry Kroto discusses the role carbon plays in our Universe.

The age-old awe that mankind has had for the heavens has driven almost all aspects of human culture and knowledge. Perhaps the most fundamental advance based on space observations led to the development of classical mechanics in order to understand the motions of the planets and comets and concomitantly the development of calculus, one of the greatest of mathematical achievements.

With the advent of astrophysics and the associated technologies we have been able to see to the very edge of the Universe and make a plethora of discoveries about all aspects of the Universe from the occupants of the space between stars to the processes occurring deep inside stars. The universe has been found to be a veritable Pandora's Box, full to the brim with fascinating and exotic molecules, dust particles and also some highly puzzling material responsible for some as yet unidentified spectroscopic features. These latter are known as the Diffuse Interstellar Bands (DIBs) first observed in the 1920s.

Particularly fascinating, curious and crucial has been the role that the element carbon has played in almost every aspect of the development of our understanding of both the physical and natural sciences. The most recent big surprise that the element had up its sleeve was the existence of C60, Buckminsterfullerene, the third well-defined form of carbon. The discovery was made serendipitously in 1985 during laboratory experiments which attempted to explain the chemical synthesis of some unusually long linear carbon chain molecules detected in the interstellar medium in the 1970’s. A second aim of these experiments tested whether the carriers of the DIBs might be long linear carbon chains.

On the basis of such revelations the suggestion that C60 might exist in space and be responsible for the DIBs seemed an as good, if not a better, possibility than most other ideas that had heretofore been proposed. Especially compelling support for the idea that C60 existed in space lay in the fact that the original discovery was made serendipitously during laboratory experiments designed to simulate the atmospheric conditions in cool red giant carbon stars. This conjecture has just been confirmed by Cami et al who have found infra red bands in the spectra obtained by NASA’s Spitzer satellite telescope.

This is yet another example of the remarkably synergistic relationship between terrestrial and space science. In these difficult times it lends useful support for the fundamental value of "Blue Skies" or perhaps more accurately “Black Skies” cross-disciplinary research. All these results taken together suggest that the 90 year-old mystery of the carrier of the DIBs might be close to being resolved at long last.


Sir Harry Kroto | talks


Date and Time:

24 June 2011 at 8:00 pm


1 hour



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