Ideas and Action for a Better India
“I will become a nano scientist when I grow up!” said Gopal, an excited class V student of a village school in Yamgarwadi, a small, dusty rural hamlet in Osmanabad district in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. Gopal, along with 7 other schoolmates and two teachers, was part of a vast audience – mainly comprising nearly 500 students and teachers from an underprivileged background – who had just witnessed a compelling presentation on science and nanotechnology by Nobel Laureate Sir Harold Kroto. For most in the audience, this was their first ever opportunity to see and interact freely with a Nobel laureate.
The event was organised by the Observer Research Foundation Mumbai, as part of its ‘Gurus of Science Series
’, in collaboration with the Nehru Science Centre, TIFR’s Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, and Triratna Prerana Mandal, an NGO working for community welfare in the Khotwadi slum at Santacruz, a suburb in Mumbai. The event was held at the NGO’s sprawling Dharmaveer Sambhaji Playground on 8th January 2011.
The objective of the event was to motivate students to pursue science as a career. Keeping in mind the needs of a majority of the audience, Sir Kroto’s entire talk was very ably translated in Marathi by Mr. Aniket Sule, research faculty at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education.
“To see a Nobel laureate and have him talk to us and respond to our questions is something we never thought we would be able to do,” said Deepak Patil, a Class X student of the BPM High School, Khar. “It was an inspiring talk, one that I will always hold close to my heart,” he added.
Incidentally, the Saturday evening was one of the coldest days recorded this winter by the local meteorological office. However, the entire audience warmed up to the charming and affable personality, who along with a small team of enthusiastic scientists, engineers and graduate students, was responsible for the 1996 Nobel prize winning discovery of the football-shaped C60 carbon molecule, christened by Sir Kroto as the ‘buckyball’.
The event started with Nehru Science Centre’s demonstrators Manjula Yadav and Ashok Jethe performing very simple but interesting scientific experiments to help the students understand the intricate laws of physics and chemistry. Using familiar things of everyday use, they demystified the principles of science, and showed how classroom teaching can be made effective, engaging and easy to understand.
After about an hour of scientific fun, all heads turned when Sir Harold Kroto, 71, flanked by his wife Margaret, arrived at the venue. The audience spontaneously welcomed him with a standing ovation. After a quick round of introductions, Sir Kroto began his 90-minute presentation, captivating the audience from the word go. The apprehension, if any, which the young audience harboured about the Nobel laureate making a very “classroom-like” lecture was immediately dispelled when Sir Kroto won them over by making a lighthearted beginning to his talk. “I am here because of my wife Margaret. So please thank her if you enjoy what I say, and if you don’t, blame her,” he said, much to everyone’s amusement.
Contributions of science to society:
Sir Kroto devoted the first part of his talk by talking about the major contributions of science to society and civilization. To press upon the importance of chemistry, he used images of amputation surgeries before the discovery of anesthetics, and of children suffering from diseases considered fatal before the discovery of Penicillin. “I want you to see these pictures and realize how grateful you are to chemistry. There can be no more humanitarian contribution than the gift of anesthetics,” he emphasized.
“In the 21st Century, you young people should realize that new bacteria are evolving with an increasing immunity to antibiotics. We may well be going back to days when we are faced with new fatal diseases without any cure. I want young people like you all over the world to find the antibiotics of the future, because there are big problems coming,” he urged.
Science is the quest for truth:
Sir Kroto ignited the imagination of the young audience by highlighting some path breaking discoveries that were made by scientists like Albert Einstein, James Maxwell, Rosalind Franklin, Charles Darwin and India’s own Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, at a very young age. “All these people were very young when they made life transforming discoveries,” he said.
He appealed to the young minds to shun everything that is said without concrete evidence. “If you believe in science, question everything. Don’t believe anything as true without absolute proof, just because there’s a general belief that it’s true,” he said.
He explained that science is the only way we can decide whether something is true with any degree of reliability. “Science is the only philosophy of truth. The best scientists accept nothing without evidence. It may take time to overcome the power of dogma. In the case of Copernicus and Galileo it was 359 years before the Catholic Church accepted the theory of the earth going round the sun. So we must be very careful and question everything,” he urged.
Molecular science and C60:
Contrary to the general belief, it is not C60, his Nobel Prize winning discovery that is Sir Kroto’s favourite molecule. “My favourite molecule is nitrosoethane, because its molecular structure looks like a toy dog. A dog made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen,” he said, showing a graphic film about the nitrosoethane molecular ‘dog’ shaking his head, wagging his tail and raising one leg at a lamppost to relieve himself, which had the audience in splits.
“The next generation of young people who research nanotechnology and chemistry will exploit the way the molecules can move. We searched interstellar space for new molecules, and found C60. When a molecule rotates, it gives rise to a photon radiation which can be detected. It is like your mobile phone that detects radiation at a given frequency. We used a radio telescope to find if these molecules were coming out of stars. We took a laser and vapourised graphite and got a hot plasma of carbon. And before we knew it, we had found C60,” he said, showing a plethora of images that left the audience spellbound.
Sir Kroto narrated how his excited team concluded that the C60 carbon molecule had the shape of a soccer ball, only a million times smaller the size of a soccer ball! “Let’s shrink the earth down by a 100 million, 108, you get something the size of a soccer ball. The soccer ball is a 100 million times smaller than the earth. Let’s shrink the soccer ball down by the same amount, a 100 million – that’s the size of the buckyball. And that’s the last fundamental constant,” he explained.
Science in the 21st Century:
The 21st Century, Sir Kroto explained, will be the century of nanotechnology; a century of nano-tubes and buckyballs. “It will be an exciting century of molecular machines,” he said, adding that it was time for the global scientific community to make new breakthroughs by learning from nature’s highly complex nano molecular machines like hemoglobin and ATP synthase, the energy currency of cells, that are already present in our bodies.
He gave the example of breeding wolves with different species over thousands of years, which led man to eventually turn a wolf into a Chihuahua, the world’s smallest dog. “With DNA, this could be done in just one small step. With DNA, we might be able to turn human beings into Chihuahuas,” Sir Kroto said, going on to add in jest that actually many humans deserved to be turned into Chihuahuas, especially many politicians! “Likewise, with nanotechnology, we can do things for the good of mankind that are unthinkable now.”
Sir Kroto defined nanotechnology as an “atom by atom, molecule by molecule assembly of a complex and functional system.” It’s bottom-up assembly by the use of chemistry.
“If you are happy with that definition, the best example of nanotechnology is you! Because you have been built atom by atom, molecule by molecule, protein by protein, nucleotide by nucleotide into a human being – a complex organism with bottom-up assembly that is well functional,” he explained. “Life has already worked out how to make nanotechnology and nano-scale machines, and it’s your job now to learn how to use science and chemistry to develop its future social applications.”
Future applications of nanotechnology:
Sir Kroto announced that the buckyball was already being manufactured commercially at Mitsubishi’s factory in Kyushu, Japan, where C60 was being made by the kilogram. This is the world’s first major commercial application of the buckyball, for use in inexpensive plastic solar cells. “By pasting C60 on a plastic solar cell, the energy generation capacity of the cell can be increased by an order of a magnitude,” he said.
Another path-breaking application of the buckyball will be the manufacturing of buckypaper, a material made by joining millions of carbon nanotubes – amazingly strong fibers about 1/50,000th the diameter of a human hair. The material will be a dream come true for any engineer – 10 times lighter than steel, but 250 times stronger. It will also have amazing properties that make it highly conductive of heat and electricity.
“Just imagine how this will transform so many things. Airplanes made of buckypaper instead of the composite material currently used, will be so strong that they won’t break in case of a crash. They will be so light that they can just glide in air for miles to the nearest airport, even in case of engine failure,” he said. “Vehicles will become virtually crash proof, and there will be no deaths due to road accidents,” he explained.
Some of these materials have already found their ways into consumer products, such as sun screens and stain-resistant pants. Others are being intensively researched for solutions to humanity’s greatest problems – diseases, clean energy, clean water etc. “The products of advanced nanotechnology that will become available in coming decades guarantee even more revolutionary applications than the products of current and near-term nanotechnology,” he promised.
Don’t play a sport if you’d be sad at not winning at Olympics!
Sir Kroto’s talk was filled with anecdotes, which inspired the children in the audience to become bold and think unconventionally. “When I was a young boy, I wanted to be superman,” he said showing a picture of his as a young kid wearing the Superman costume. He went on to describe his other boyhood passions: becoming a tennis champion, a gymnast, and also becoming an actor. “In school and university I used to draw and do posters. I did covers of the youth magazine as an art editor,” Sir Kroto said. In fact, his first award was not for science, it was for the design of a book jacket. “I still do a lot of logos and graphic art designing,” he said.
“You all are so young and energetic today. Some day you will grow old and decrepit like me. So enjoy your youth, your energetic life,” Sir Kroto said, encouraging the children to experiment with their goals.
However, he urged them not to pursue any objective in life with the aim of winning accolades. “Don’t play a sport if you are going to be disappointed at not winning at Olympics. Play a sport because it’s a sport. If you won’t do your best for your homework in school, then you are not doing yourself justice. Whenever you do something, think that you will do it the best way you can. Someone might be able to do it better, but you have to do your best, always. If you do something that satisfies you with a half hearted effort, why not do something where you have the determination to do your best? When you do that, you will be successful,” he said.
The résumé has changed:
Sir Kroto urged the gathering to make the most of the new science and technology advancements that were available to them in the forms of Google, YouTube and Wikipedia. “Your ‘GooYouWiki’ world is very different from my world when I was young. You’ve got Internet. It’s a revolution that you should take in both your hands and grasp tightly.”
He explained how at the Florida State University, where he now serves, students are encouraged to make video films of their projects and presentations, and post them on YouTube, and give their URLs with their résumés while applying for jobs or scholarships. Showing a clip of the University’s first ever such presentation made by an Indian student, Prajna, Sir Kroto said how his students got prestigious jobs and scholarships in top institutions around the world using this modern tool. “This is the power of the Internet. It can get you jobs. You have to learn how to make your video presentation. In next 4-5 years it will be inevitable. You’ve got to learn how to do it now,” he stressed, adding, “the résumé has changed”.
He also appealed to the teachers in the audience to adopt this practice in their schools and colleges and encourage their students to make video presentations. “This even has a hidden benefit. When we decided to ask our students to record videos their project, they became 10 times more enthusiastic about their project itself. You will be delighted to see that they have become more enthusiastic about their studies,” he said. Even the teachers save a lot of time that is otherwise lost in going through piles of résumés. “This way, you can relax in your armchair while you see the smartly made videos of the aspirants,” he said.
Remember your Humanity:
Sir Kroto’s most important message for the evening was on world peace. He made a fervent appeal for the end of nuclear weapons. “Our world is very dangerous,” he said, pointing out that the world, led by the Western world, today had a nuclear arsenal which was enough to destroy the earth a 100 times over. He expressed anguish that even India, which should have lived up to the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi and taught the world not to make atomic bombs, had gone ahead with its strategic programme for making nuclear weapons. “We have to do a ‘u’ turn, now. For just his one action of trying to reduce the number of atomic bombs in the world, the U.S. President Barack Obama deserves to be called a great man,” he remarked.
If you become a scientist, we don’t need any more atomic bombs; if you become an engineer, we don’t need any more landmines. Please do not work on these things if you take up science as a career. We don’t need to blow up the limbs of more little kids in the world,” he said. He added that the greatest man he personally knew was Dr. Joseph Rotblat, the physicist, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 for his lifelong efforts for reducing the danger of armed conflict and seeking cooperative solutions for global problems through the Pugwash Conferences. “He was the only scientist on the Manhattan Project that made the WW II atomic bombs, to quit before it was completed, and when it was clearly not necessary for him to do so,” he said.
Sir Kroto ended his presentation on a very somber note, reciting a paragraph from the Nobel speech delivered by Dr. Rotblat:
After his talk, Sir Kroto faced a volley of interesting questions from the audience on science, nanotechnology and even on global geopolitics and world peace! He replied to all the questions – even to those asked in Marathi and Hindi – with the patience, poise and composure of a Guru.
At entertainment shows in large public places that generally wind up late, the audience normally makes a rush for the exit even as the organizers are completing the customary ‘conclusion’ formalities. However, when Sir Kroto finished his talk at well past 10 pm, nobody moved. After a long applause, excited children, parents and teachers rushed to the stage to get a closer look at their new-found icon. Many of them offered their copies of former President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam’s book ‘Wings of Fire,’ (gifted to the entire audience by ORF Mumbai) for the Nobel laureate’s autograph. Some others wanted to just shake hands with him, while most others were busy clicking his pictures on their mobile phone cameras. Sir Kroto cheerfully and unhurriedly obliged each one of them, as they lined up in groups and went on the stage to capture their moment of a lifetime, often asking questions about their education about what their interests were and so on.
Sir Kroto had special words of encouragement for the students from Yamgarwadi’s village school, who had travelled nearly 500 km from their homes to Mumbai, specially to attend his talk. He was pleasantly surprised at their innovativeness and ingenuity, when the village school children presented him a box full of indigenous scientific toys made by them.
Sir Kroto also inaugurated the website of the Triratna Prerna Mandal on this occasion.
Dr. Bal Phondake, noted scientist and author, who presided over the event, gave his concluding remarks. Shri Sudheendra Kulkarni, Chairman, ORF Mumbai, gave the vote of thanks.
Later, Sir Kroto and Mrs. Kroto visited the office of Triratna Prerna Mandal, built over a public toilet in the Khotwadi slum of Santa Cruz. He keenly interacted with the NGO’s activists, who through committed and selfless work, have increased their scope of work from managing just the public toilet, to running a women and child welfare centre which provides nutritious meals to the underprivileged children of the neighbouring Aanganwadi schools, a computer training centre, a environmentally friendly garbage disposal and waste management project, a rain water harvesting project and even a vocational training centre for the local youth.
He deeply appreciated the selfless and ingenious work done by the NGO, without any government help, and only by building the trust and support of the slum community. His entry into their vistor book said it all ‘This kind of selfless work is desperately needed all over the world”.
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About Sir Harold (Harry) Kroto:
Sir Harold Kroto received a BSc (Chemistry, 1961) and a PhD (Molecular Spectroscopy, 1964) from the University of Sheffield. After Postdoctoral work at the National Research Council (Ottawa, Canada) and Bell Telephone Laboratories (Murray Hill, NJ USA) he started his academic career at the University of Sussex (Brighton) in 1967. He became a professor in 1985 and a Royal Society Research Professor in 1991.
In 1996 he was knighted for his contributions to chemistry and later that year, together with Robert Curl and Richard Smalley (of Rice University, Houston, Texas), received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of C60 Buckminsterfullerene a new form of carbon.
A strong votary of taking science to the people, he set up the Vega Science Trust, a UK-based educational charity (see www.vega.org.uk) to create high quality science films and other teaching material to benefit students around the world.
About the Observer Research Foundation (ORF):
The Observer Research Foundation Mumbai is a not-for-profit, nonpartisan and multidisciplinary public policy think tank engaged in developing policy alternatives on a wide range of issues of local, national and international significance. ORF Mumbai conducts research and advocacy in six broad areas: Education, Health, Inclusive Development, Urban Renewal, Youth Development, and Protection of India’s Priceless Heritage of Arts and Culture.
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For more information, please contact Dhaval D. Desai, Research Fellow and Programme Coordinator, ORF Mumbai, at email@example.com or 022-61313800.