Sir Harold Kroto – Science Education and Freethinking

March 28, 2008

Sir Harold Kroto, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, is in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at The Florida State University. He is a tireless science educator who gives lectures, presentations and workshops to groups of all ages with the aim of communicating his passion for science. He’s a fellow of the Royal Society, and was awarded its 2002 Michael Faraday Award for public appreciation of science.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Sir Harold Kroto relates what budded his initial interests in science, including the influence of his childhood Meccano sets, and emphasizes the importance of hands-on exploration and science learning. He recounts the discovery of the Buckminster Fullerene, for which he won the Nobel Prize, and the frustration he has with people outside the sciences who view science as only worthwhile if it is “useful.” He discusses his views on religion, and how his background in science has fueled his freethinking and religious skepticism. He explores the question of whether or not science education efforts are succeeding, and details his “buckyball” workshops for children. He also explores whether or not he advances the “religion of secular humanism” when he teaches science deliberately excluding any mention of God or religion.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, March 28, 2008. 

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I’m happy to have Sir Harold Kroto on point of inquiry this week. He’s the winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and he works in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the Florida State University. He’s a tireless science educator who gives lectures, presentations and workshops to groups of all ages with the aim of communicating his passion for science. He’s a fellow of the Royal Society and was awarded its 2002 Michael Faraday Award for Public Appreciation of Science. Sir Harold Kroto, welcome to a point of Inquiry. 

Always great to be on the show. 

Let’s start off with talking about your science, how you got into science. You credit those Makana kits, those toys that are kind of like Legos, right. But they’re more complex. Well, they are more like it. 

What you have here or over here is erector set. It’s a lot different from Lego Legos for small children. And it’s excellent for getting them interested in structure and building things. But Meccano, an erector set, which is actually a copy of Meccano. We’re actually good engineering devices. In fact, many people in the industry used Meccano to build Jig’s and to actually develop technology. So I did. Taught me how the world I lived in was built, how to put things together, make cars and things that actually worked in the same way that our world worked. I used to work before computers, but my other main interest is art and graphics. And my first awards went off a science book for my art. And had I lived maybe 20 years later with many more options, I probably would have been an architect or certainly in the more graphics area rather than the sciences. In those days, just after the war, it was important to get a job. And so you focused on areas which had a much higher statistical probability of making sure you because look after yourself in the future. Whereas today people go on to be celebrities and goodness knows what. And so they they don’t have the the rigorous sort of background as a kid that I had to ensure that I was well equipped to survive in the future. 

What you’re getting at is that your play as a child cast a shadow on everything that you did in the future. 

There was a basis for my understanding of how the world works and enable me to fix things and to be somewhat self-reliant about the world in which I lived. I didn’t need to depend on anyone to particularly say when I got a car when I was 24. I used to fix it as best I could unless I couldn’t. And they were took it in, but I couldn’t afford to take it in for minor things. 

I want to touch on what led to your being awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Tell us about the Buckminster Fuller Rijn and how you discovered it. 

Well, I think the first thing is to realize I didn’t go into science to win any prizes. I went into it because it was a job and I was good at science and I’m good at technical things. And as I went through life, I’ve stayed in the sciences and did it as a degree and did a postdoc and came to the US and Canada and then was offered a job back in the sciences and decided to keep on going. And if it worked, then I carry on that way. And if it didn’t get out and do graphics and design, but it went on and I was quite successful as a scientist. In about 1985, I suggested the experiment to colleagues at Rice University in Texas, which is a very sort of rather mundane in some ways experiment, but one that was on the back of my mind and it worked the way I thought it would. But then it also had a serendipitous, incredible surprise that a round of spheroid or cage molecule C 60, which I called back, Mr. Folarin, also was formed. And that was a tremendous surprise and it was a serendipity. 

Jim Underdown these are carbon molecules. 

Yes, a molecule of carbon made out of 60 carbon atoms, which has the same structure as a US soccer ball. 

No one expected that. 

And so on top of the results, which I’ve been looking for, which were interesting to me, was this incredible surprise, which actually changed many attitudes towards carbon and its chemical nature and led to a huge area of new science and particularly new chemistry, but and also triggered the discovery of nanotubes and Buckie choose, which have been rather important in developing our ideas about nanotechnology. So this incredibly surprising discovery. Some felt was worthy of the Nobel Prize. We were very fortunate to to uncover something that was totally unexpected. 

Jim Underdown, have you or any other scientists figured out any practical applications of this? 

Let me just say something about science before I answer that. And that is that I think one irritation for scientists is that people outside the sciences. They only think of the sciences as application and useful. All right. They don’t ask artists what writers, what use is your book? I mean, it’s self-evident. And because science happens to be not only a creative area and intellectually stimulating and exciting and fundamental understanding of the nature, it also helps to be incredibly useful. And it’s obviously revolutionized the world in which we live, from computers to cars to transport to modern drugs. And these things are solved to some extent. It is for me and other scientists mineralization that that’s the only thing that we in general are asked on is what you say, road discoveries. My answer once was no. I hope it never has a use because it released it won’t be misused. 

So but in fact, there are some areas where I see 60 looks as though it will have applications in organic solar cells and the nanotubes in battery technology. And of course, if we may, some of the major advances in using and creating these sort of structures. It should have major applications in not only electronics, molecular electronics and producing supercomputers that could be in a wristwatch or but basically also civil engineering. But these are really a long way in the future. These are just dreams at the moment because we still have a long way to go before we have the technology to create at will some of these fascinating nanoscale structures. 

Professor Kroto, I’d like to turn to your views on religion, if you don’t mind. Sure. While on the one hand, you’ve said that you’re not religious. You’ve also said kind of tongue in cheek before that you have for religions, humanism, Athie ism, amnesty, internationalism and humanism. 

Those are all, I think, some of the great advances of the human race. I don’t give the credit for those wonderful advances to a mystical creator. I give it to the great people that came in the past and developed humanitarian philosophies. We don’t call it God Ety. We call it humanity, albeit some of these people were many religious who’ve done fantastic things. But no, I give the credit for the development of our humanity. In fact, I think that’s our greatest invention of the human race. Humanity and an understanding of one shouldn’t inflict pain on others and also not on animals as well and these sorts of things. These are human attributes, and I think we should be seen to be such. 

Here you are, an esteemed Nobel Prize winning scientist, science educator, awarded for your bringing science to the public. But you’re speaking out occasionally against religion in that role as a as a scientists. Esteemed scientists aren’t scientists, on the other hand, supposed to be neutral and open minded and not try to push one ideology on their audiences over another? 

No, I think that we’re not pushing an ideology here. I see it as pushing free thinking. I mean, I’m a I’m a great fan of Jefferson and Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, who were the fathers of the revolution. And if you look at Jefferson, he says something like as because belief and nonbelief, he puts the two together are so important to individuals, it should be separated from the state and education and the media and all these things that control our lives. So I think religion and whatever one believes is up to an individual. As far as I’m concerned, there are two worlds. There’s a world inside my head and the world outside my head. And that world outside my head is governed by the laws of nature. And it should remain so. And many aspects of my world are actually governed by dogma and Russia, the dogma of communism in Germany, the dogma of Nazi national socialism, which my parents had to flee from in 1937. And I see now the rise of dogma, a religious dogma all around us, which is now controlling the infrastructure of society, not just the judiciary, but the educational programs, the politics, the media and the financial infrastructure. And I don’t think that’s right, because dogma really is something which claims to have some authority on the basis of no evidence. And I think that is. Doesn’t matter whether it’s religious dogma or political dogma or socio economic dogma, it has to be justified. And I think that’s what bothers me. I think it’s an important issue. I don’t mind what people believe as long as my world is not governed by unsubstantiated belief, that’s all. And that’s free thinking rather than anything else. 

So as a scientist. Freethinker, you feel obligated to speak out. You can’t just stay above the fray. 

I think that’s right, because size differs from everything else. It didn’t make it. It’s the way the world is. Okay. And so as a scientist, I’ve been brought up or somehow I’ve evolved into someone who, as Carl Sagan said, the first rule of science is to disregard claims from authority that are basically in brackets, unsubstantiated by verifiable experiment. And something that I can feel is is correct. And so this world of the way the universe says we didn’t make it. It’s the way it is. And that is very important for me. But it seems to be less important for other people. 

And that’s part of the problem now. I don’t mind that. But when it now impinges on the way that maybe the Supreme Court and the USA may make decisions which are very important on the basis of dogma, religious or otherwise, I think that’s disturbing and that’s all I’m saying. 

And so where I see these these controlling various aspects of our socio economic infrastructure, I think as a scientist I have to say that’s not right. I’m a good example is here in Florida where people who are controlled by religious dogma are trying to control the educational process and don’t want evolution to be on the Florida science standards. And evolution has been verified by one hundred thousand scientists. Review paleontology, archeology, chemistry, physics, geology, you name it. 

There’s ample evidence that evolution is a fundamental law about the way things evolve and the way molecular biology evolves. There’s no doubt about it anywhere else other than the group of people who want to distort the process. And that’s not good for our young people. They should know about the wonders of DNA. 

They should know about the wonders of tectonic plates. They should know about how these fossils grow. And they should know something about how the human race evolved. When I see that sort of distortion of the educational process, of course, as a scientist, I feel an obligation to be involved, partly because the Nobel Prize, I feel, gives me a burden, an added burden, because I have people to listen. 

And I think they should listen to me, not for what I have to say, but to say, look, look at the evidence. Think critically about this. Look at this evidence and look at that evidence. I mean, I was in a discussion two weeks ago with a with a man who said I believe in microevolution, but there’s no evidence for macroevolution. There’s no evidence. He was telling me that the dating carbon 14 dating and all these dating were quite wrong. So that there’s no evidence for this one yet. He said there’s plenty of evidence for the resurrection. And I said, well, what is that? He said that it’s the written record in the Bible. Well, you know, I found. 

Corrected by that sort of statement. And I find it rather Jim Underdown, right? 

I want to zero in on your religious skepticism a bit before we move on to talk about science education. Sure. Is your atheist and your humanism? Is it part of your scientific worldview or is it informed by it? Do you think your science necessarily leads to that Athie ism? 

Yes, I think that for me, everything has to be justified. If you claim something I said, what’s the evidence for it? So I don’t accept anything. 

I just feel that our laws and our attitudes were formed by humans, by people. And once we recognize that, I think we will make less mistakes. That by and large, I feel for many of the decisions that we have to make. There’s no right or wrong answer to this. I mean, let let me just give an example in the case of women’s rights on abortion. For me, there’s no right solution to that. That is, I have to make a decision. And by and large, it’s a very difficult decision. But I, I feel it’s up to the woman to make that decision together with good, disinterested advice. That’s the sort of issue. And I think if one now enforces decisions on these people through dogma, I don’t think that’s right. I think we we’ve got to there’s an old Chinese saying I seek not the answer, but to understand the question. And by studying the question in detail and understanding the limitations as human beings, I think we will make better decisions. So fundamentally, there is no truth. There is no absolute. Other than the way the universe is, the way our world works on a socioeconomic and socio political scale is something that we’ve invented. And once we recognize that, I think we’ll make better decisions rather than on the basis of dogma which is handed down in various parts of the world in different ways on the basis of some mystical ideas. I mean, some very, very simple, obvious critical thinking decisions that I make. The first is that my father was Jewish. I was brought up now, but then there are Christians. They think something differently. Hindus think something different, Buddhism, something differently. They can’t all be right. I mean, it’s just so blatantly obvious that either Hindus are right about their religion. And if they are, then Christians are wrong about that. Okay. And they are all the same. So only one of these can be right now. That’s a very simple critical thinking analysis of the situation. And the only solution for me is that they’re all wrong. Okay? There is nothing. And therefore, I am who I am and I’m responsible to me for what I do. And if I do nothing, that’s not so good. I have to be responsible for my own actions. 

So no one, you’re atheist whom your humanism, your kind of ethical worldview is. 

I prefer to be free thinking. I mean, atheist is basically free thing. 

Just that I don’t have the need to believe in something for which there’s no right. And you see, agnosticism doesn’t mean anything to me. So you as a scientist cannot actually prove it. But I can’t. I mean, I say to these people, look, I’m a hamster on him, right? 

I believe as a hamster on the other scientific style, Beetlejuice. Okay. I pray I get up and pray to this hamster every morning. Right now, you can’t prove the reason to a hamster. Just because I can’t prove there aren’t infinite number of other ideas out there is a meaningless thing to say to me. Okay, so agnosticism is a sort of wishy washy term. Just explain what this God is. Well, none of the guys that go. They’re all different. Everybody has a different interpretation is something in their head. 

So you prefer the term freethinking. And you said that you’re free thinking, is informed by your scientific worldview, maybe even leads directly from Jim Underdown. You know, it comes from your site, a scientific one. 

It says that if if there’s no evidence, then there’s no point inventing something that you wish is wishful thinking or these things. 

So for me, I don’t have a problem about not understanding some things that are not understandable. You know, I don’t have a problem like that. But a lot of people do. They just feel something where there’s no creator, then there’s no ethics. And I don’t believe that. I think we invented the ethics. There is no creator is wrong. And we invented those ethics, albeit by some many people involved in religions, ideas and fighting against religious ideas. Jim Underdown. 

But regarding ethics, you wouldn’t argue that there’s no reason to be ethical. You’d instead say there’s good evidence to behave ethically in this or that way. But it’s based on evidence. It’s rational. 

It’s it’s well, I think it’s more based on the way that we interact with one another and that if we see in the animal kingdom, we do see intrinsic humanitarian altruism in gorillas and primates that are close and. 

Animals as well. So I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t think there’s any fundamental good job bad in Mike. There’s just that we’ve developed as human animals, too, that these things are good for us. And I think if we understand that better than I think we’ll be better people for it. 

I’d like to turn to science education. You’re widely regarded for bringing science to the public, especially to children. You give all these public lectures throughout Florida, around the world on science for the public. Let me ask you, have you noticed it getting better for people? Is is all this work that you and other people are doing to teach the public science? Is it is it paying off? 

No, I don’t think so. I think our world is conspiring against us. 

I’m doing the best because some I don’t know why, but just because I can do it and people want me to do it. And my major initiative now is to try to use the Internet because the Internet, as I see as the second great revolution in education, off the printing press. 

And this is the Veigar science trust that you started. 

That’s one of them. This is Vegas, I trust, which is a wonderful archive with lots of Nobel Prize winners. 

And the new one that I’ve set up here in Florida, FSU called Geo Set Global Educational Outreach for science, engineering and technology so that more in line of YouTube and Wikipedia where people can just put up their their ideas. And I’m I think I’m going to get quite a number of other universities getting joining the Geo SAT program in Canada and Japan and the U.K. and Mexico and India as well. And so it sort of combines Wikipedia with YouTube. 

In fact, there’s a video and then there’s a downloadable PowerPoint. And the idea is to create modules for teachers. I think there’s a massive problem, and that is that we’ve been tearing our hair out for the last 20 or 30 years. No science teachers. Well, that’s not going to change in the next 20 or 30 years. We can see that already. But there are not very many scientists and they’re certainly not going to go into teaching because it’s not well-paid enough. So that’s the big problem. And also, we need these teachers at the age of eight, nine, 10 year olds. So eight, nine, and don’t never see a scientist. And if there are scientists in teaching, they’re teaching 15 year olds when it’s too late. So we’ve got to grab these kids very early, get them excited about the world. 

Did that happen to you? Did someone grab you early on? 

Well, I think my father probably immersed me in making things, but also good teachers. But there is a massive problem today, and that is the world that our kids are living in is full of things that can’t be fixed. They’ve got mobile phones, and when they don’t work, they throw them away. Right. I mean, that’s a totally different world from mine when something didn’t work. You fixed it when the telephone. What? We didn’t have a telephone when we did have a telephone and it didn’t work. I get it up and fix the bell. Right. Or the radio didn’t work. I opened up the back and put in a new valve. 

Surely you’re not saying the solution to our science education problems is to teach people how to fix things themselves? Things are so complicated they can’t fix them themselves. 

That’s what I’m saying. That’s the problem. I’m not saying what the solution is. I’m saying that if we try and understand what the problem is, that my world was very different. I could fix everything in the house. I say when it broke down today, you can hardly fix anything. 

That’s a problem because you have computers and they have mobile phones and they have iPods and they’re unfixable. So that problem is is a serious one for kids who who need at a very young age to get on with their world. One thing I’m doing through the Jessep program is trying to create modules for teachers who are not science teachers. So they’re able to teach some science at an earlier age. And that’s part of this program that from the the ACR stamp program here at Florida State, which I called GFC Jim Underdown. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get more information about the Veigar Science Trust and the Geo Set program through our website point of inquiry dot org. Harry, before we move on from science education and finish up, I want to ask you about your Buckyball workshops. Tell me about them. 

Oh, well, she started, I think, a UCSB in Santa Barbara visit that quite a lot. And I had done some little presentations on science for small kids. But then I remember we set up at one for maybe about 50 kids and getting to make models and hands on construction of C6 Jim Underdown of this carbon molecule that you talked about earlier, if you can make it out of molecular modeling kit. 

And so it started off a whole trend. And with a colleague in Sussex Stern, Jonathan Howe, who has a creative science center, we we actually developed this workshop and we’ve done it all over the place. I’ve done them. I’ve done on the Internet to Venezuela and to Iceland, and I’m through the whole of Australia to 3000 kids through across the whole of Australia. 

But also, I’ve done them in small units, either 30 or 40 at the British Association meetings, which are held all every year annually in Britain. And what I do is a little introduction on science. What how we why we’re here, where we came from. All our carbon atoms were made in stars. And kids love to know that they’re really all aliens. You know, that they hold their atoms came from space. 

And I tell them, you know, do you want to see anemones? Yeah, yeah, yeah. So we’ll just look in the mirror because you are an outsider. 

We’re on the next star stuff. 

We’re all made as stardust. And so and then it goes on to thinking about carbon in the body. And then also the fact that they construct this incredibly beautiful molecule, which, as I say, Rick Smalley and Bob Curl and a couple of students, Sean O’Brien, Jim Heath and also you and you at Rice, we discovered it. And kids just love it. And the last part is, is where the kids sit down and actually make it. And the interesting thing about it is, as they build it, it automatically in a way which is almost magical. It curls into a ball. So you don’t have to do anything. And some kids recognize well, they see they’re trying to keep sometimes trying to keep it flat. But it doesn’t. It gradually grows into a soccer ball shape by itself. 

And that gives them a feeling for a self-assembly. 

And what in some ways in the future, nanotechnology is Jim Underdown and gives them a feel for the experiences you had as a youngster putting things together. 

Sure. Absolutely. I mean, I think the the big losses that I had a hands on world and now that world is has been left by the wayside by these fantastic microtechnology and transistors and and computers and stuff like that. I mean, I ask often and ask kids how many mobile phones they’ve had. Two or three. And what is it? Where are the other ones where they’re in a drawer somewhere. How many computers have I had? And they’re just sitting piled up and our world is not recyclable. And they point out that can’t go on. So we’ve got to build a recyclable world and one one with our world. 

Someone listening to you might read into your comments that you’re you’re sounding a little anti-tax technology. 

Well, no, I can’t give out because the technology has revolutionized our world. But I just pointing out not that I’m anti technology. I’m just recognizing the problem that we have. Understanding our technology and why there are so few kids wanting to do science. And if we recognize what the problems are, maybe we can find solutions. I can’t be against technology, but I can be against the way that society decides to use it. 

I see. Because technology is just application of knowledge. Knowledge is independent. What we have as a responsibility as scientists and politicians and others is to use that technology wisely. I think quite often we use it unwisely. I mean, the unwise use of technology is the fact there are 28000 nuclear weapons at this present moment to which three and a half thousand can be set off in the next one and a half minutes. I think that’s unwise application of technology. And that’s part of the scientific community job to make people aware of that there are what I call misusage of those technologies. 

Harry, I want to finish up by tying the last two topics we’ve talked about together. Your worldview, your freethinking world view and also science education. When you teach science, especially in these buckyball workshops, you leave no room for God. You’re not talking about other explanations for how we got here. In some interviews, you even reveal outright hostility to religion. Here’s the question. Can you see how you’re advancing a religion of secular humanism and not just teaching neutral science? These Christian activists go so far as to argue that such science education, like you just described, should be illegal in the schools because they say it breaks the separation of church and state. 

Well, religion is something that is a dogma, as far as I’m concerned, based on no evidence. Free thinking is just the opposite of that is questioning. All I’m asking is to question, and that’s what science is. Science is fundamentally questioning about our universe and the way it is. It can hardly be a religion. Okay. Just the opposite. Science is itself the rejection of dogma and the request for evidence for anything that is held up as being authority. Tarion, so it’s a misnomer. The second part of it is that if someone wishes to present religious views, they shouldn’t just present one. They should present the views of the Hindus. 

Those of the Aborigines of Australia. Rain serpent. And those are the Seminole tribes of India. All the aspects and the pharaohs and the Shinto, US and the Buddhists. I think there are, you know, one billion Hindus. I mean, why just pick on one of these theories of creation? So I’m I’m happy for those to be discussed. I don’t think we should be discussing science lessons because science lessons are about the way the universe is in which we didn’t create. I mean, we’re just looking at the way it is and we have to look at that disinterestedly. Unfortunately, people involved in creationism are not looking disinterestedly. They see that as something that is against their perspective. And to some extent, I would say that’s true, and that’s why they see that as something that they will fight against. And that’s not my fault. That’s the way the world is and the way the world is. All our children should know about it if they at the end of the that decide some due to be religious. That’s fine. But when it comes to in this country, the projection of just one world view. I think that’s that’s not good either, because there are a lot of other people who think differently. I mean, Muslims, for instance, don’t recognize that Jesus is the son of God. They say he’s just a prophet like all the others. Now, why don’t they resolve that one? Those seem to be major issues between Muslims and Christians. And the Hindus have a large number of gods. Why don’t they resolve that problem? And these seem to me to be very simple, rational questions that someone outside those dogmatic, mystical views finds rather strange that they can’t resolve flows into some thing more global. And of course, they can’t. Sunnis and Shiites have differences of opinion as well. Shinto has a zillion gods. I think everybody has their own God in some of these things. And Buddhists don’t have a God at all. So Buddhists, I look upon visas as being very interesting. And these are personal views and perspectives. But science is independent of what I think. And that’s a very important aspect. And it’s not a religion. It’s just the way it is. 

Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry, Sir Harold Kroto, OK. 

My pleasure. 

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DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.