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Nobel Prize winner in chemistry rocks packed house at Jacksonville University

A chemistry professor rocking a packed house and prompting bursts of laughter? It happened Monday, Oct. 15, at Jacksonville University as Nobel Prize winner Sir Harold W. Kroto spoke to students, faculty and the public about science, education, creativity and more in Gooding Auditorium.

Sir Harold Kroto

“If you make people think they are thinking, they love you,” he said at the start. “But if you make them really think, they hate you. Well, I’m not here to make you comfortable.”

Kroto, a champion of science education, is a big promoter of careers in science among young people. He’s the Florida State University Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry and won the 1996 Nobel Prize for his work helping discover the buckminsterfullerene, a form of pure carbon better known as “buckyballs.” It consists of 60 carbon atoms arranged as a spheroid in a pattern exactly matching the stitching on soccer balls.

Kroto discussed his own sketchy academic performance as a youth, causing chuckles as he showed a letter home to his parents in elementary school chastising him for his work (“We are not at all pleased with how Harold is working … He is very fond of play … and is not paying attention.”)

“Well, I got to play the rest of my life,” he said, discussing his forays into the world of art, theater, graphics, business, science and more. He even showed a photo of him on stage in school with Ian McKellen, now also a British Knight and one of the world’s most accomplished stage and screen actors.

Kroto urged his audience to be open-minded and have ideas. He said creativity is finding something interesting in one area and being able to apply it to another area.

It’s also dependent on knowledge and the availability of learning materials, a fact he drove home by showing and discussing the legions of book burnings through antiquity and across the globe that have stifled innovation and imagination. “There where they have burned books, they will also end up burning people,” he said, quoting 19th century German poet Heinrich Heine.

An atheist, he promoted science as key to finding real answers. Scientists and engineers make up less than 1 percent of the population but are the ones who created the modern world, he noted.

“We need brilliant young minds to take up the cause of evolution” and other subjects, he said.

Monday’s event was organized by Dr. Joseph Cradlebaugh, JU’s Chemistry Department chair. Cradlebaugh was encouraged by the event’s promise of giving science students and enthusiasts “a brush with history, the joy of insight and a sense of the future.”