The Carbon-60 molecule was first found at Rice University in 1985 by Harold Kroto, Robert Curl, Richard Smalley, and then-graduate students James Heath and Sean O'Brien. Carbon-60 was found to occur naturally in common soot. Because of its resemblance to a geodesic dome, the molecule was named the Buckminster Fullerene or Buckyball for short. In 1996 Kroto, Curl and Smalley were recognised with a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. October 11-14 the discoverers were celebrated at this conference in Rice University.
Sean in particular was inspired by the Apollo program to follow a career in science. The spherical form of Carbon-60 was first proposed by R.W. Henson in 1970. Henson's idea was rejected by colleagues and was never published. The Buckyball's discovery began with cosmic dust. Diffuse Interstellar Bonds (DIB) were an unexplained astrophysical feature. Possibly unknown carbon molecules played a part. Speculation about the interstellar medium would eventually lead to Buckyballs.
When the team announced their discovery, many scientists tried to refute them. At least 6 papers were devoted to puncturing the discovery. One paper was nastily titled "C-60: a Deflated Soccer Ball." Some scientists are devoted to studying soot, and were miffed that the Buckyball team had discovered in soot what others had not. Finally in 1990 another researcher isolated a bottle of Buckyballs, vindicating the discovery..
The Nobel winners commented that "the structure of universities is counter-productive" and "Germanic."
The pressure to publish is "negative for the creative process."
At a big school like Harvard or UC they would have enjoyed little stature.
Buckyballs helped open up the new science of nanotechnology. They led to carbon nanotubes and other potentially useful products. This year, 25 years after they were found on Earth, C-60 molecules were observed in a planetary nebula by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Since the search for Buckyballs began with speculation about the interstellar medium, a discovery in Space was a fitting birthday present